Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand has been in the global spotlight recently, and for good reason. Not only is she the world’s youngest female head of government, but she has also asserted that one of her top priorities is “to make New Zealand the best place in the world to be a child.” That is a statement to be celebrated.
I had the pleasure of meeting Prime Minister Ardern on 23 September, when we shared the stage at the Social Good Summit, held annually in New York during the opening week of the United Nations General Assembly session. The next day, she would address her fellow world leaders in the General Assembly Hall as her husband and their three-month-old daughter looked on.
Joining us on the Social Good Summit panel were Bangladeshi social activist Suraiya Haque and Kenyan entrepreneur and media personality Julie Gichuru. The question at hand: Why is it important for governments and businesses to invest in family-friendly policies like paid parental leave, paid breastfeeding breaks and affordable, accessible child care?
Given my co-panellists’ track records as powerful advocates for the rights of women and children, the collective response came as no surprise. We agreed that investments in family-friendly policies are critical because they pay enormous dividends – with a direct line to healthier, better educated children, better supported workers and more sustainable growth.
In short, policies that help strengthen the bond between working parents and their children – especially in the critical early years – can and must shape the workplace of the future.
Only by redesigning the workplace can we enable these parents to give their children the best possible start in life
That’s because early experiences have such a strong influence on children, and because parents are at the centre of those experiences. A child’s brain reaches an astonishing 80 percent of its adult volume in the first three years of life. Supportive, caring and consistent relationships between young children and their parents are the key to healthy brain development – which, in turn, has a lifelong impact on a child’s ability to learn, grow and contribute to society.
Yet, tragically, more than 40 per cent of children under age 5 in low- and middle-income countries may never fulfil their potential. They are held back by poverty, poor health and nutrition, and a lack of early stimulation.
Of course, most parents want to do their best as caregivers. But many have no choice about working long hours away from home. They often miss out on quality time and major milestones in their children’s lives.
Only by redesigning the workplace can we enable these parents to give their children the best possible start in life. To reach that point, however, many of today’s employers should shift their thinking in four key areas.
The first is a shift from focusing on maternal leave to thinking in terms of parental leave – and recognizing that support from all caregivers is essential to children’s health and development. (UNICEF’s ‘Super Dads’ campaign underscores this fact by emphasizing the vital but often overlooked role of fathers.)
Second is a shift from changes in infrastructure to more investment in people. Breastfeeding rooms and other upgrades to the physical workplace are a necessity. But parents also urgently need more skills and opportunities to balance work and family life.
Third is a shift from individual to shared responsibility. Children’s health and development should not rest solely on the shoulders of their parents and caregivers. Employers, too, have a stake in keeping families strong.
And fourth is a shift from reducing parental stress to improving family well-being. With family-friendly policies in place, we can do both. If Jacinda Ardern and her lovely family are any indication, even the most demanding workplaces – even the General Assembly Hall – can become more supportive of parents’ needs and children’s well-being. We need only the will and the drive to make it happen.
In the first part of this two-part post, I discussed why family-friendly policies are vital to the well-being of children, families and societies. Now the question is, how can we work with businesses to shape the family-friendly workplace of the future?
The truth is that we have a long way to go to make a difference for hundreds of millions of working women and men globally who need more support for their other full-time job as parents and caregivers. The climb will be especially steep for workers in the informal economy in low- and middle- income countries.
Family-friendly policies are good for children, good for women and good for the economy
In the garment sector in Bangladesh, for example, women’s absenteeism and turnover rates are high, due largely to inadequate parental leave. At the Social Good Summit in New York on 23 September, I shared a panel with Suraiya Haque, a dynamic campaigner whose NGO, Phulki, tackles this issue head-on in Bangladesh. Phulki works with businesses to set up on-site child care so that working women don’t have to sacrifice their children’s well-being to achieve economic independence.
Suraiya started her project with one factory owner in 1991. Since then, she and her colleagues have established a network of child-care centres serving thousands of employees in more than 40 garment factories.
We can learn a lot from such successes. Around the world, an increasing number of businesses already see the value of adopting family-friendly policies like paid parental leave. Managers at these companies realize that investing in such policies may increase their operating costs, at least in the short term. But they have made a calculated decision that the benefits far outweigh any incremental added costs.
And the benefits are clear: Family-friendly policies are good for children, good for women and good for the economy.
These policies help companies retain employees and provide them with greater career opportunities – especially for mothers. They boost employee engagement and morale. They attract a talented, motivated workforce and make companies more competitive.
For businesses that have not yet recognized the value of becoming more family-friendly, UNICEF can offer relevant data, evidence and guidance. And we can set an example by improving our own policies.
We have made some progress in that direction within UNICEF, and we have more work to do. In our procurement process, we give preference to suppliers with family-friendly policies whenever possible. We are also developing a new assessment tool that companies can use to measure their impact on children and families – their ‘footprint’ – in communities where they operate.
In the end, what is good for families is good for business. Our job now is to deliver that message globally, in partnership with governments and companies that have already begun leading the way.
Read more about how employers can help parents give their children the best start in life – 10 ways companies can be more family-friendly.
The Social Good Summit is jointly hosted by Mashable, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Foundation and 92nd Street Y. It brings together world leaders, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, social activists, celebrities and other progressive citizens to explore ideas and solutions to building a better world by 2030.
Henrietta H. Fore is the Executive Director of UNICEF.