Friday, June 22, 2012

Where in the World Can Women Have It All?

A few weeks ago, Writer Abroad was introduced to one of her husband’s co-workers. He asked if she had gone back to work (her day job is copywriting) after the baby was born.

“Yes, after a six month leave, I went back to work 60%,” she said.

“Oh,” he said. “Doing the 'Swiss woman' thing, I see.”

At first, Writer Abroad was slightly offended. But then she smiled because it was kind of true. And also because it was kind of nice that part-time work was accepted as something professional people did in Switzerland. 

Writer Abroad tells this story because of a recent article in The Atlantic entitled, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, by Anne-Marie Slaughter. It discusses why American women with families are still struggling to reach the top of their professions. One of the main reasons is that employers do not place very high value on workers who value their family time (especially those who dare to express it).

Things are a bit different in Switzerland. Some may call it old-fashioned. Because here, it is still acceptable (even encouraged) for professionals to put family first. For Writer Abroad, it was no big deal to take a six-month leave from her ad agency in Zurich (also easy to do when health benefits aren’t tied to employment) and come back part-time.

But here’s the interesting thing: in Switzerland, fathers do the part-time thing too. Writer Abroad knows several couples that recently had children, and both the mother and father each went back to work at 80% (four days a week). They are engineers and lawyers and journalists. They will probably go back full-time when their children go to school. In this way, many professionals in Switzerland already appear to practice the "irregular stair step method," as Slaughter recommends for slightly non-linear career progression.

Of course, there are other aspects of Swiss life that are far from perfect for women to really have it all. Many schools have varying start times depending on the day of the week, and many children still have two hour lunch breaks where someone is expected to be at home to feed them. And store hours aren’t exactly late-night worker friendly either. All of these things are slowly changing, but it's yet to be seen whether they will change fast enough for Writer Abroad, if she chooses to continue living in Switzerland.

But it does beg the question–is there a place in the world that really has it figured out? 

Please, those of you reading this with day jobs, how is family valued in the country you work in? Is your place somewhere where women can have it all?


  1. Funnily enough, I linked to that article yesterday too. It's the best and most reasonable thing I've read for a long time. Germany is very mixed: women can take three years off work for each child and still come to back (some form of a job) and companies support part-time workers. However, the school system doesn't support working families at all: school finishes before lunch! Women do go back to work, which is a good thing, but all this support for part-time and the need to be around for the children in the afternoon, means they aren't making management. The middle and top tiers are skewed strongly towards men. Women who work fulltime AND are in management are either childless or have a supportive partner who has put his career on the back burner.

    The ONLY way I have been able to return to work fulltime (after a 12-year break as a freelancing home worker to raise three kids) is pay for an all-day private school. And that is not right.

  2. Saw that article too. As I told someone else I'm weary of the "women can/can't have it all" headlines. No one can have it all - neither men or women. What you have depends a lot on the support network you have and ambition.

  3. Sounds like Germany and Switzerland are pretty similar as far as part-time work and school issues.

    When I say where do women have it all, it's more about trying to discover the country that gives women the most options to pursue what they desire.

  4. Turkey is a very child-centric culture. There are national holidays specifically devoted to celebrating youth. Women here have the lowest employment rates of any European country. One reason is because it is a conservative culture. Another is that once you've gone ahead and arranged childcare there isn't much left over. So many think, why bother working?

    Another big difference I notice between American culture and Turkish culture is that Turkish women still have enormous pride in being an amazing, fabulous housewife. American women, not so much.

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