If investing in family-friendly policies is good for business, then many companies are missing a trick. Giving parents and families adequate time, resources and services to care for children, while staying in their jobs and improving their skills and productivity, pays off according to employers. But for many, in all parts of the world, paid parental leave and childcare are not a reality. And that can compromise the first critical years of life – a time when the combination of the right nourishment, environment and love can strengthen a developing brain and give a baby the best start.
Evidence suggests family-friendly policies pay off in healthier, better-educated children and greater gender equality, and are linked to better productivity and the ability to attract and retain workers. Momentum for change is growing with an increasing number of businesses beginning to see the value.
Keneilwe Ditsile, 34, is a working mother of seven boys, including seven-month-old quadruplets. She lives with her children and Otsile, her partner and father to the boys, in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, where she works as an administrator in a bank. She is the family’s primary breadwinner and an employee at First National Bank of Botswana (FNB), one of southern Africa’s largest banks, and has benefited from their recently adopted family-friendly policies throughout her latest pregnancy.
The couple’s day starts at 5am, just before the seven children wake. Although, in reality, her days never seem to end. “In the night, if one of them wakes, they all wake. “We have two babies in the bed and two at the end of the bed in the cribs,” she says. “The second-born, Amagolo, and fourth-born, Atlegang, refused to sleep in the cribs, so we have them in the bed always. Their names combined mean ‘count your blessings’ and ‘you must accept your blessings’.”
FNB’s support has been invaluable to Ditsile, but her main pillar of support is her partner, a hands-on father who is a stay-at-home parent, taking on the caring and feeding duties while Ditsile is at work. “Sometimes I can hear the babies crying from outside as I walk towards the door. It’s challenging. But I’m a strong woman psychologically and physically, so I’m lucky,” says Ditsile. “But I couldn’t do it without a supportive partner. We do everything together. We go to the shops together, everything we need to do for the kids we do together. But it’s not easy. I need to do homework with the older brothers. I need to have time with my partner. And I need time for myself.”
Geralda November is one of about 10,000 residents of Ouanaminthe town who commute six days a week to jobs at the Codevi textile factory on the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, a sprawling complex operated by the giant Grupo M Industries. November’s daughter is one of 147 children under 6, who are taken care of at the factory’s childcare centre while their parents work. November’s work is in the factory’s T-shirt production line. She is paid the Haitian minimum wage, around USD $800 (£570) a year. Employees also receive health benefits, subsidised meals, and food for their families on Fridays. Childcare is provided for the company to workers, like November, who perform exceptionally in their jobs.
The factory encourages mothers to take breastfeeding breaks to support their children’s health and development.
She explains what the centre means to her: “I can work in peace when I know my baby is cared for, played with and fed. If I didn’t have access to this, I might not be able to work and earn, or I’d have to look for someone to take care of my baby at home. I know I wouldn’t feel at peace with that. I know people that don’t have this support; they had to leave their jobs.”
The family is of the Ba-Na minority, one of 54 ethnic minority groups in the country. The parents are farmers – in addition to a rice field, they own a hectare of land where they grow coffee. Twice a year, Trun takes a second job on another farm to earn additional income. Before the Covid pandemic closed schools across the country, Nu would stay home with her youngest son, A Khin, while Trun would drop the eldest, Khun, off at school and spend the day on the land. Now both boys accompany their parents to the fields, playing as they work, or resting in the shade.
Last month, Covid cases rose in Vietnam and with schools closed again, Khun and A Khin are staying home with their parents. Balancing their work with the challenges of helping their children learn has been hard for Nu and Trun. Nu says: “When the kids are at home it’s challenging for both me and my husband. We don’t have time during the day to help Khun with his learning and we also don’t have the knowledge to teach him at home. A Khin, instead of going to kindergarten, is going with us to the field every day.”
Albert and Beatrice Monyo both work full-time; Albert, at the Association of Tanzania Employers (ATE), and Beatrice, as employee relations manager at Stanbic Bank. Their hours are flexible; they often start at 7am and return home by 3.30pm to be with their daughter, Audrey, who has a nanny, Esnat.
“I love caring for her,” says Albert. “It’s unusual for a Tanzanian dad to be so involved. After she was born, the nurses taught me how to bathe her, and when it was time to go back to work, I was simply jealous. I wanted to remain involved. A good father is responsible and gives time for the family. You have to make yourself available, you have to dedicate time. I’m privileged to work in an organisation that offers flexible working hours and working from home. If you always work, you don’t have time to be with your children, to teach them about values, culture, norms, things we do and don’t do.
“I want Audrey to make all her decisions in life based on her heart. I want her to experience equal treatment. I believe woman are more intelligent than men, and we would all be better off if they had the same or even more opportunities than men. Holding women back holds all of us back.”
“We explode their creativity,” says Farah Khoury Genao, welcoming 3-year-old Noah and his father, Jorge Ferreira, into the Intellikids childcare centre in Santiago, the Dominican Republic. Noah is one of 13 children, aged two to six, spending their days learning coding, values and ethics, communication and expression.
The centre is just one of the many family-friendly policies offered to workers at software development company Intellisys. “Noah likes to play with the blocks and do robotics puzzles. He likes to take things apart and put them back together. He’s exploring this at the centre,” says Ferreira, a senior software developer.
Company co-founder Dalisa Heredia-Corcino says she wants an “ecosystem” for employees and their families: “We created these policies because as parents we found ourselves in need of childcare, flexibility at work and a supporting network around us to help build our family. As founders of Intellysis, we were able to give ourselves the environment we needed, and we wanted to expand this to all of the staff. It is about us being human,” she says. Dalisa and her husband, Christian, include fully paid parental leave, including three months for fathers, prenatal classes and flexible working arrangements in their family-friendly policies, to support a thriving workforce. “We do the work to the best of our abilities because we are given the responsibility and support,” says Ferreira.
“This was my dream job, really. We can grow economically and professionally. We can learn and support our family. I’m very grateful for that. It would be interesting if other companies offered this, but it would take a whole culture change to see this happen. Employees working at other places might not know that these policies would even be a possibility.”
Fatou Ceesay works as a civil servant at the department of community development in Soma and her duties often require her to visit project sites. She and her husband have three children: Ibrahim, Fatou and Omar. The two eldest children live with their father, who works in the capital Banjul, a four-hour drive.
Although Ceesay was entitled to six months of paid maternity leave, in the absence of childcare in Soma, she has to take her son with her to the office every day. She is fortunate to have understanding co-workers.
A large part of her day is visiting projects and reporting on progress and challenges. “I made sure the project hired a babysitter to care for the babies on site … I have very supportive co-workers, they really helped me those first few months,” she says. “As women in the Gambia, we have triple roles, reproductive, productive, and social or community roles. We deserve to be helped,” says Ceesay. “Governments should create child-friendly policies that accommodate us. Taking care of your baby and working at the same time is not easy. There should be daycare at institutions and workplaces, so we can deliver as men. Because we have the capacity. Whatever men can do, women can do too, even much better. But these are some of the challenges that hinder our progress.”
Ayooluwa is the main caregiver for the family’s children. Before Forefoluwa, their eldest, was born, Ayooluwa worked as an executive assistant, but after the birth she decided to become a full-time parent and caregiver. She says: “I worked as an executive assistant until I was about to have Fore [Forefoluwa], and before that I was working in the financial sector. I’ve been at home with the children ever since, mainly because it is my desire to be present to care for my children when they are young, but also because my salary wouldn’t have been enough to cover nursery fees, even if I’d gone back full-time.”
Robert is a doctor carrying out disability assessments, in particular with individuals involved in industrial injuries. Prior to Forefoluwa’s birth, Robert was a locum doctor working in NHS hospitals. Robert says: “I pretty much decided to change roles a few months after Fore [Forefoluwa] was born. I took two weeks off work – which was unpaid as I was a locum at the time – and I realised I wanted and needed to be around more. When you are a locum doctor the hours can be quite unpredictable and antisocial. It can be quite stressful. My father was a surgeon and I remember him working a lot and I didn’t want that for my family.”
Ayooluwa sums it up: “As parents of young children, work-life balance is a topic constantly on our minds. Not just for us, but for our family and friends in a similar position. We all bemoan the fact that the current society and educational system is not designed with working parents in mind.”