EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Reconciliation of work, and family life for women in Spain

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The participation rates of women are rising, but are still some way behind those of men. The problems of reconciling work and family life hinder the integration of women into the labour market. The UGT has criticised the transposition of the European Directive through the Law on reconciliation of work with family life. The law interprets that the problems of work-life balance are individual rather than collective. The trade union view is that they should be considered as a collective problem because they involve a loss of equal rights, lower the birth rate and threaten the economic future of the country.

On the occasion of International Working Women's Day, on 8 March, the General Workers’ Confederation (Unión General de Trabajadores, UGT) published a report on the situation entitled 'Reconciliation of work with family and social life to make everything fit' ('Conciliación de la vida laboral, personal y familiar para que todo encaje'). This report deals with two interrelated subjects: employment and the development of the Law on reconciliation.

The situation of women in employment

The participation rates of Spanish women have risen sharply in recent years, though they are still quite far from the objectives of the Lisbon Summit (60%). Differences between the male and female participation rates are still quite high (23.6% according to Eurostat figures).

Table 1. Participation rates, 2nd quarter of 2003 and 2004
. Total Men Women
2004 2003 2004 2003 2004 2003
EU25 69.4 69.3 77.2 77.4 61.7 61.2
EU 70.3 70.0 78.3 78.4 62.3 61.5
Spain 68.2 67.1 79.9 79.5 56.3 54.5

Source: Eurostat.

One of the obstacles to increasing female participation and employment rates lies in the difficulty of reconciling work with personal life. The lack of public welfare resources and the problem of assignation of male and female roles directly affect the availability of women to participate in the labour market. The employment rate of Spanish women has risen (47.7% in 2004 compared with 45.9% in 2003), but is still far below the intermediate objectives for 2005 (57.1%) established at the Stockholm Summit (2001). Only Poland, Italy and Malta have lower rates than Spain.

Table 2. Employment rate, 2nd quarter of 2003 and 2004
. Total Men Women
2004 2003 2004 2003 2004 2003
EU25 63.2 63.0 70.7 70.9 55.7 55.1
EU15 64.7 64.4 72.5 72.7 56.9 56.1
Spain 60.7 59.6 73.5 73.1 47.7 45.9

Source: Eurostat.

Differences between men and women are still high: in the EU25 the distance is 15 percentage points, compared with 25.4 in Spain. This is one of the greatest differences in the whole European Union. Furthermore, the differences are more striking if one analyses unemployment. The female unemployment rate is almost double that of the EU15, and only Poland and Slovakia have higher rates.

Table 3. Unemployment rates, 2nd quarter of 2003 and 2004
. Total Men Women
2004 2003 2004 2003 2004 2003
EU25 9.0 9.0 8.3 8.4 9.8 9.9
EU15 7.9 8.0 7.3 7.3 8.8 8.8
Spain 11.0 11.2 8.0 8.0 15.3 15.5

Source: Eurostat.

In summary, these figures show that the participation and employment rates of women have risen sharply, but there is a persistent problem of inequality in employment. This is also reflected in pay: women earn 25% less than men in equivalent posts.

The inequalities are also reflected in underground and illegal employment. According to a recent study by the Women's Institute (Instituto de la Mujer) entitled 'The presence of women in illegal employment' ('La presencia de las mujeres en el empleo irregular'), 17% of women work without being registered in the social security system (Seguridad Social). Most of this undeclared work involves domestic service (30%), followed by business services (16%) and hotels and catering (14%). These inequalities are even greater for immigrant women, as is clearly shown from an interview with a Peruvian woman immigrant: 'In order for a Spanish woman to be emancipated, an immigrant woman is necessary' (quoted in El País, 8 March 2005). An interesting research project has shown major differences in the working conditions of immigrant women, who are subject to a triple discrimination: most of them have precarious, temporary and underground jobs, receive less pay and suffer from gender discrimination, according to Sonia Parella ('Mujer, inmigrante y trabajadora: la triple discriminación', Barcelona: Anthropos, 2005).

Reconciliation of work with family life

One of the obstacles to improving the integration of women in employment is the difficulty of reconciling work with personal and family life. Some figures provided by the Women's Institute show that the family workload is still borne by women. For example, childcare leave was requested in 2003 by 96.3% of mothers, compared with 96% in 2002. Maternity/paternity leave is still also mainly taken by women. In 2000 it was requested by 99% of working mothers, compared with 98.4% in 2003. In other words, the roles and distribution of the domestic workload are unchanged.

The report by the UGT is critical of the transposition of the Community regulations ('Directive 1992/85/EEC' and 'Directive 1996/34/EEC'). 'Law 39/1999' of 5 November, on Reconciliation of work with family life, introduced a series of what are considered to be minimum measures. This law contains shortcomings and has failed to bring about substantial change in the discrimination of women. According to UGT, 'this law does not deal with the sharing of family responsibilities, does not fulfil the conditions of non-transferability of parental rights and even maintains the exclusive right of women for some of them, such as maternity/paternity leave and breastfeeding; all these points are contradictory to the content of Directive 1999/34/EEC on parental leave'. Under Spanish legislation, in many cases women still have exclusive rights that go beyond the biological aspects of maternity and clearly involve the meeting family responsibilities. At best, it provides for a transfer of these rights by women to men.

The UGT proposes that the following specific measures should be included in the law:

  • The right to shorter working hours for reasons other than family responsibilities.
  • The possibility of voluntary unpaid leave.
  • The possibility of paternity leave independent of maternity leave and the right to take holidays at a time different to the maternity/paternity leave when they coincide in time.
  • Equal rights for common law couples with regard to paid and unpaid leave to those enjoyed by married couples. This is already included in some collective agreements.


The absence of effective policies for dealing with reconciliation as part of a collective problem has led most women to seek individual solutions. They do this by deciding not to work, delaying or abandoning maternity or doing a double working day. Furthermore, they suffer discriminatory working situations and inequalities in employment, training, promotion and other spheres of social protection. The subject of reconciliation cannot be fully broached through collective bargaining because of the regulations on work organisation and working time. The law gives employers discretionary powers to regulate the distribution of working time. The widespread introduction of irregular working hours, shift work and weekend work aggravate the situation of working women with family responsibilities. One of the main consequences of this situation is the falling birth rate, which will have profound economic repercussions for the future.

The trade unions have stated that the reconciliation of work with personal and family life should be considered as a social problem rather than an individual problem of women. The modifications to the legislation should form part of a general anti-discrimination policy that would attempt to break gender-biased social roles and foster responsibility-sharing between men and women. (Antonio Martín Artiles, QUIT-UAB).

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