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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: http://www.humanite.fr/social-eco/c...

by Cécile Rousseau

Mothers forced to stay at home

Translated Thursday 13 March 2014, by Kathryn Stedman

A study by CESE shows that many women do not stay at home out of choice. These women are, above all mothers, victims of job insecurity and unaccommodating employers. Many are also forced to stay home to look after their children due to financial concerns or the unavailability of childcare.

“A suspicion of idleness has always weighed heavily upon women” (1). This notion of laziness is the legacy of many centuries in which a woman’s work was simply not recognised. It is a notion, which indicts the housewife in particular. However, a study by The Economic, Social and Environmental Council of France (CESE), published at the end of January, illustrates that many women dream of returning to work. As the paper highlights, “it seems clear that the vast majority of women are, in fact, out of work against their will.” According to INSEE (The National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies), 4.5 million women aged between 24 and 65 were recorded as economically “inactive” in 2011. Among them are the “hidden unemployed” – women who are seeking employment but have been deterred by their financial circumstances, or who are simply too busy to work (see below)...and 2.1 million housewives. While the total number of housewives may have decreased in the last 20 years (there were 3.5 million in 1991), the number of women who stay at home out of choice has fallen dramatically, from 59% to 21%. Most often it is the end of a contract or a redundancy, which confines them to the home.

After a period of maternity leave, followed by voluntary redundancy, Myriam, 35, struggled to find work for over two years before taking a government sponsored job: “It was a terrible time for me. It is very difficult to find a way out when you have no qualifications and your experience is not recognised, even though I had previously worked as a secretary and even an executive assistant.” As Hélène Fauvel, spokeswoman for the study on behalf of the delegation for women’s rights and equality at CESE, explains: “Women without qualifications are the most affected by joblessness; the absence of a degree is a crucial factor for women more so than for men. Suspicion weighs heavily on them.” Under house arrest, Myriam was at the end of her tether. She recalls: “It hurt when people close to me asked whether I was bothered that I got paid for doing nothing, that I was subservient to my husband because he was the only one with a job. But I tightened my belt to make sure I didn’t overspend. In my free time I wasn’t out buying books or going shopping!”

Mothers, already the victims of job insecurity, are also prevented from working by inflexible employers, who are unwilling to relax their working hours after the birth of a child. CESE euphemistically suggests: “Employers still tend to avoid any involvement with complex work-life schedules.”

After the birth of her fourth child, Caroline, a dynamic bank branch manager in her thirties, decided to take full-time maternity leave: “If I could have, I would have gone back to work part-time. But my employer didn’t want that. After my third child, I took part-time maternity leave and they did nothing to accommodate me. I worked mornings from Monday to Friday, despite the fact that I could have concentrated all my work into three days! My children went to school just round the corner from my workplace; I would finish at midday and then have to wait until 4pm to pick them up. People said that I should just be happy to have part-time work, even though I was legally entitled to it!” Fed up, Caroline used her maternity leave to find a new job.

CESE found that the other major factors contributing to joblessness among women were practical and financial constraints linked to childcare. The task of reconciling family life with a professional life falls exclusively on mothers; consequently, it is mothers who are the principal victims of an implicit and anachronistic assumption, that they should be the ones to sacrifice their careers. According to a study by the National Family Fund (CNAF), 40% of French women who stopped work after having children would have preferred to continue working.

Nothing on earth could have kept Laetitia, 37, a bubbly restaurant owner and actress, from her work. But after the birth of her daughter, she found it extremely complicated to juggle the care of a child with her unpredictable work schedule. “Naively, we thought that we’d cope better than our friends, but that was far from the case! We couldn’t get a place in childcare. The three of us live off 2,000 Euros a month. What choice did we have? Pay for one nanny during the day and another in the evenings, which would have cost around 1,500 Euros, or send her to a private childcare centre?” she chokes. With a heavy heart, Laetitia stopped going to auditions and hung up her apron in order to take care of her daughter: “I started to feel down. I love my child, but staying at home to look after her permanently is just not for me, my career is too important. Over this period, my husband and I fought a lot. I resented him for having been able to keep his job.” After eight months, she finally managed to secure a spot for her daughter in a childcare centre three days a week. When she saw how upset Laetitia was, the head of the centre agreed to bend the rules and accept her daughter five days out of seven. Laetitia exhales: “I was ten times more relaxed, I enjoyed going to pick her up. I find it staggering that society doesn’t do more to help mothers, but leaves them at their wit’s end, with no place in childcare and no fallback solution.”

In order to reduce the number of “desperate” housewives, CESE recommends an expansion of the childcare options available to parents, but considers that shared responsibility for family affairs between both parents is “an absolute necessity”. Attitudes need to change.

Points of reference
CESE notes that the number of women in France considered “active” quite simply doubled between 1901 and 2008, rising from 6.8 million to 13.9 million.

In France in 2011 there were 12.6 million “inactive” women and 9.1 million “inactive” men, i.e. people neither in work nor looking for work: anyone under 15, students, pensioners, homemakers or those unable to work.

According to figures from DARES (The Department for the Coordination of Research, Studies and Statistics), in 2008 90% of women without children under 18 were economically active, while only 43% of those with more than three children, of which the youngest was less than 3, were active in the job market.

(1) Un siècle de travail des femmes en France, 1901-2011, Margaret Maruani and Monique Méron, Éditions la Découverte, October 2012.

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