Reader’s letter – Some reflections on the cong? maternelle and the Swiss mentality

16 November 2008

Some time ago, Geneva introduced a fourteen-week cong? maternelle (maternity leave) to allow women who are giving birth to take a minimum of time off work while (hopefully) retaining their jobs and their salary benefits. This was considered a significant step for a Swiss canton, but not necessarily in the right direction according to the opinion of a large part of Swiss society. Issues concerning maternity leave, childcare and family planning are still considered personal matters in this country, and there are strict boundaries between professional life and life outside work.

Women, in particular, seem to be the victims of this attitude—something which is reflected in the occasional press articles focusing on the need for women to find a balance between their professional and home life in an increasingly demanding society. Most of these articles seem to focus on the fact that although more and more women want a professional life, they are only able to pursue these goals as far as their obligations at home permit—meaning that they should be careful to maintain a balance between child and family care and their working life.

In addition to the virtually non-existant social benefits for mothers in Swiss professional society, there is another problem related to the same paternal heritage of this region: the attitude of Swiss men towards childcare and family values. In the above-mentioned press articles, little or nothing was said about men’s obligations as far as children and family life is concerned. Men seem to have been born with a supreme right to forsake their children and wives in their quest for fame and fortune, as they are destined almost from birth to be the breadwinners of the family. True, most men earn a higher salary than women, but what are the real reasons behind this?

Coming from one of the Scandinavian countries, my culture is one where the attitude towards these matters is significantly different from that found in Switzerland and the rest of Europe. In my region of origin, more than 80% of women work, and still we maintain one of the highest birth rates in Europe. This is possible due to two factors.

First of all, our governments have realized that equal opportunity is as much their responsibility as it is a personal matter. Based on this approach, maternity leave of one year with 80% of the salary has been implemented, allowing women to care for their newborn babies without having to worry about finding a cr?che or nanny after a few weeks. In addition, men enjoy the possibility to share these twelve months, since “maternity” leave is freely transferable between the mother and the father. Furthermore, it is the aim of the governing powers that cr?ches should be available to everyone, at affordable prices. Combined, these factors ensure a safe and secure environment for both parents and children, without the implied message to women that once they give birth they should strongly consider “staying out of business”.

The second factor is the attitude of men, which differs radically from that of their Swiss or EU counterparts. Most men in Scandinavian countries are prepared to take the responsibility that fatherhood implies, by devoting a significant amount of time to their children. It is as common to see dad picking up his kids at a cr?che as having mum do so, and the idea of staying in the office until 9 p.m. is frowned upon by most fathers. If your child goes to sleep at 7 p.m., you should be home at least an hour before in order to take as much part in the daily routine as you can. “Weekend dads” are an unknown concept. The responsibility of fatherhood is not to be taken lightly. Where Swiss men brag about their long working hours, Scandinavian fathers will instead brag about reading fairy tales to their children every night at bedtime.

In these respects, Switzerland and most EU countries for that matter, are decades behind the northern part of Europe. With childcare being defined as a private matter, and an austere and highly chauvinist attitude among even the younger male generation, this is no surprise. However, if true equality is to be achieved these factors have to be changed. To me, it is a laughable matter that a large group of the (male) population still opposes maternity leave sanctioned by law, and even more strange that it should be limited to only fourteen weeks. How can you possibly put a fourteen-week baby away for ten hours a day in a cr?che? You only have to consider the fact that breast-feeding is the best method of nurturing newborns to realize the impossibility of limiting maternity leave to less than four measly months. Also, the one-day leave that fathers are entitled to at most Swiss enterprises is, in my eyes, a blatant joke and an insult. What about four weeks mandatory leave, with the possibility to work reduced hours or even sharing the next few months with the child’s mother?

Many will argue that the cost to enterprises and society would be far too high to implement such schemes, but this is not a valid argument. After all, we’re here with the ultimate goal to improve conditions for all of us, and we would all benefit from providing better opportunities for women to maintain their career prospects. Besides, both the children and their fathers could definitely benefit from a shift in the childcare responsibilities from the feminine to the masculine sex!

Trond Stroemme