While mothers in the Czech Republic enjoy one of the longest parental leaves in the world, they also experience serious setbacks when returning to work. Studies have shown they often see a drop in salary post maternity leave, they frequently find themselves in less skilled roles and are less likely to be promoted.
Pavlína Polášková is a Prague-based doctor with a two-and-a-half-year-old son, Vítek. Before going on parental leave, she worked in the country’s biggest hospitals, Motol, as a radiologist. Like other parents in the Czech Republic, Pavlína was allowed to take parental leave for up to three years, granted by her employer.
"I was originally planning to stay at home for two years, because I didn’t complete my board certification, so I didn’t want to lose so much time in the education process. But after two years it was apparent that my son was not ready to be in day-care full-time, so I switched to the three-year programme.
Pavlína’s former employer, Motol hospital, allows women to work part-time, but she would have to serve a full, eight-hour shift. Without grandparents or other relatives at hand, and with a partner who works full-time to provide for the family, she cannot afford such an option.
"Unless I am ready to work a full eight-hour shift, it not really possible for me to return to work at the hospital. There are some hospital-provided day-cares, but there is a really long waiting list, so I wasn’t able to use that option.
"I would love to work part-time and in fact I am currently working at a clinic elsewhere which gives me the possibility to work only for six hours a day, and that is manageable for us."
Like many mums, Pavlína says the possibility to work at least some hours while staying at home with her child is very important for her, and she would prefer to work more, if the system would allow it:
"I don’t want to lose contact with medicine and the health care system. I also want to complete my board certification, so I need to further my education. And after two years on full-time maternity leave, I am ready to start working again and enjoy a conversation with an adult."
Under the current family policy, Pavlína cannot be fired during her time on parental leave and she has to be taken back to work, although not necessarily in the same position. While at home with her child, she receives a parental allowance, a monthly sum paid for a period of up to four years. She can also opt to draw the money over a shorter period of time, but the overall sum is capped at 300,000 crowns.
Pavlína’s decision to stay at home for three years is not at all uncommon. In fact, parental leave in the Czech Republic is one of the longest in all the OECD countries and Czech mothers tend to use all the leave that they can. So where does this tradition come from? That’s a question I put to economist Barbara Pertold-Gebická from the Institute of Economic Studies, who has been studying the impacts of maternity leave on women’s careers.
"We can see a similar situation in Slovakia, Hungary and Austria, so it probably comes from the tradition of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This traditional definition of the role of mother in taking care of the children was somehow altered during communism, which supported working mothers.
"However, after the Velvet Revolution, the society tried to go back to its roots in a way, tried to negate everything introduced during the communist years, and it seems to me there was this tendency to go back to this old system which many believe is the best."
While many experts say children at an early age benefit from staying at home with their parents, being cut off from work for many years makes it harder for women to return to the labour market and often stalls their careers. Studies show that the longer the mothers spend with their child at home, the harder it is for them to return to work and the less money they earn, explains Mrs. Pertold-Gebická.
“According to our analysis, mothers who return to work after having children actually start their career all over again.”
"This is actually the biggest problem of the current system. Usually, mothers have two children and they often have them in quick succession, which means they spend five or six years at home. That is a very long absence from the labour market.
"According to our analysis, mothers who return to work after having children actually start their career all over again. They are in the same position as if they had just graduated from school and were looking for a job.
And would you say the state authorities are doing enough to support women returning to work?
"A few years ago the situation was quite bad. It was very hard for mothers to go back to work. Even though there is job protection, anecdotal evidence suggests that many women actually lose their jobs after coming back from parental leave. This is mainly because during this long period, companies have to find other employees and naturally there is no place for the woman returning from parental leave.
"It is also because mothers who have a three or four-year old child at home find it hard to work full-time and the availability of part-time employment is very, very low in the Czech Republic.
"In recent years the situation has slightly improved, probably because of the economic boom, when employers find it much harder to find employees. Some bigger companies started looking at mothers as very loyal and valuable employees. They gradually introduced special measures for mothers to help them work from home, such as flexible working hours, to reduce the work-load."
"That is definitely not sufficient in the Czech Republic. The official state-supported care for this age group is virtually non-existent. There are a very few places in state nurseries and there are only around 10 percent of children below the age of three in these institutions, which is one of the lowest figures in all the OECD countries. In the Nordic countries, it is up to 70 percent and in Germany, it reaches 20 percent, so the Czech Republic is really lagging behind in this respect."
What measures should be introduced to help Czech women returning to work?
"Well, I think the problem in the Czech Republic is that the family policy is in a way inconsistent. The policy offers very generous support for parents, but in practice the support lasts only until the child is three or four. "At this point, the support ends, and mothers face a situation where their child is old enough for them to return to work but it still needs a lot of attention. So mothers find it difficult to juggle their professional duties with motherhood.
"I would suggest flexible employment, including shorter working hours. This is definitely something that should be supported. And of course childcare, which is still problematic. While in some places in the Czech Republic, it is easy to enrol a two-and-a-half-year-old child in kindergarten, there are other places, especially Prague and other big cities, where it is hard to find a place even for a four- year-old, which again makes it very difficult for mothers to work."
“The official state-supported care for children under the age of three is virtually non-existent. The Czech Republic is really lagging behind in this respect."
Is there any country in Europe that could serve as an example for the Czech Republic?
"I think that Germany is the best example for the Czech Republic, in reforming the family support system. It is a country that had the most similar initial situation.
"Several years ago they introduced a big reform changing the whole system of parental leave, shortening it, but at the same time conditioning the amount of parental allowance on previous earnings, which means that mothers who earned more received a higher allowance.
"They are also putting a lot of effort into increasing the availability of child care. So I think this is a country that could inspire the Czech Republic, because it had a similar cultural approach towards childcare, yet they managed to reform the system and are slowly finding a new equilibrium, where mothers are integrated faster into the labour market after having children."