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Marina Gask-Ajani
December 2016.
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Which country has the best system for working mums – and why can't Britain emulate it?
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Taking into account criteria such as childcare, flexible working and gender equality, Sweden is the hands down winner. In a recent survey of expats living abroad by HSBC (the annual HSBC expat Explorer Survey), after Sweden came Austria and Finland. 

All three are excellent for cost, quality and availability of childcare, as well as maternity benefits and acceptability of flexible working. And Swedish mums shoulder less of the parental burden, with their partners taking an average of three months off work to look after their newborns; in Britain less than 10% of dads exceed the statutory two weeks paternity leave, fearing the impact it could have on their career if they took more. 

"The biggest issue for UK mums is crippling childcare costs, with parents having to pay an average of £6,000 a year to send a toddler to nursery part-time. Even mums on a high income struggle to pay for their childcare, so the burden for working families on lower incomes is disproportionate."

Currently UK fathers are eligible to take between two and 26 additional weeks off, with each extra week subtracted from their partner's maternity leave. But the biggest issue for UK mums is crippling childcare costs, with parents having to pay an average of £6,000 a year to send a toddler to nursery part-time. Even mums on a high income struggle to pay for their childcare, so the burden for working families on lower incomes is disproportionate. 

Schemes to ease the costs of childcare don’t go far enough. A recent law giving working parents of 3 to 4 year olds 30 hours of free childcare a week only applies for 38 weeks a year and only some working parents are eligible. For many families in the UK it makes better economic sense for one parent to stay at home, and although there are exceptions that responsibility tends to fall on the mother. And staying at home with the kids to avoid childcare costs is not, of course, good economic sense at all for women themselves in the long term. 

"In the UK mothers do not have the automatic right to flexible working, only the right to request it."

The negative impact includes loss of earnings, increased pay gap between them and their partner and peers, difficulty of getting back on the career ladder years later when they want to return and the financial insecurity that comes with relying on their partner who may not always be there to support them financially. Furthermore flexible working still has slow take up in UK businesses. 

There’s lots of talk and policy about it, but the cultural shift necessary to make it work is missing. In the UK mothers do not have the automatic right to flexible working, only the right to request it. Employers must consider your case but can reject it if they think it will have a detrimental impact on the business. So while the UK Government shows interest and willingness to introduce measures that help, they fall short of what comes across as a real commitment by places like Sweden to make gender equality and family a priority.

Caroline Flanagan's book 'Baby Proof Your Career: The Secret To Balancing Work And Family So You Can Enjoy It All' is available here