Exploring Women’s Workplace Experiences: a Cross-Cultural Conversation

Wilma is very excited about reconnecting with her friends from the University of Amsterdam. She can’t believe it’s already been ten years since they all completed their Master’s degree in Corporate Finance and went back to their home countries to start their careers. 

With a hint of nostalgia, Wilma recalls some nice memories she shared with her friends. Back then, they could spend hours discussing and reinventing the world around a nice cup of coffee. But with the frenetic pace of life, it can be difficult to stay in touch with everyone, especially remotely. 

Wilma, who now works in Stockholm as a financial controller, feels very lucky to have managed to find all her friends via social media. It wasn’t an easy task to set up this video call due to the different time zones: Kelly now lives in New York, Emi in Kyoto, and Stéphanie in Luxembourg. 

The emotion is palpable when the four friends join the call and see each other after so many years. 

“Hey girls! How are you doing? I can’t believe it’s been more than ten years since we celebrated our graduation in Amsterdam!” Wilma points out cheerfully to her peers.

“I’m so happy to see you all!” replies Stéphanie. “I will try to keep my voice down as my little one just fell asleep, but it will be hard.”

“Oh, congratulations for your baby, Stéphanie!” exclaim the friends in chorus. “How old is your little one?” asks Kelly. 

“Well, Lily is now four months old and she has changed my life forever,” explains Stéphanie with a hint of pride.

“Of course, children light up our life every day and I couldn’t picture mine without my two children,” stresses Kelly. “Although, let’s face it, being a working mother isn’t a path strewn with roses…” Kelly sighs.

“Oh dear, I know exactly what you mean,” replies Stéphanie. “This is what we call the ‘mental workload’. Juggling professional ambitions with family responsibilities and social expectations is a burden in our daily lives, especially for us as women!” 

“I couldn’t agree more,” underlines Kelly. “The situation here in the US is far from ideal.”

“Oh really? How does the system work there?” asks Emi, whose curiosity is sparked by Kelly’s understatement. 

“Yes, please tell us. We’re all ears!” exclaim Stéphanie and Wilma jointly. 

“First you should know that both maternity and parental leaves are regulated by the United States’ labour law and state law. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) only grants you 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually if you work for a company with 50 or more employees,” Kelly explains.

“Oh my!” her friends gasp in unison. 

“That’s not enough at all! It’s below the 14-week minimum required by the World Health Organization!” cries Wilma, outraged.  

“You know that I don’t like complaining, but I can’t deny that the pressure is high for working mothers here in the US! In fact, I have two kids – one is seven years old and the other is five. My younger son had to spend a few days in intensive care because he was born seven weeks prematurely. However, I could only spend ten days with him at the hospital as we couldn’t afford to live for 12 weeks only with my husband’s salary,” Kelly explains. 

“That’s so terrible to hear!” reply her friends, deeply appalled by Kelly’s story. 

“Indeed. That’s why I had to resume work reluctantly. It was terrible! My routine consisted of pumping milk at work, going to the hospital to visit him and going back home before starting this routine all over again the next day,” Kelly sighs. 

“I hope your son is fine now. It must have been so hard for you!” points out Emi, visibly shocked by this story.

“Thank you. My son is now doing great! But that was indeed tough for me. I felt really guilty to have to resume work so early. I should have been able to spend all my days with him at the hospital, but that’s what we have to go through when we become parents in the US I guess,” Kelly states with a resigned tone.

“Oh! I’m so sorry to learn that Kelly. You’ve been so brave! There’s no denying that while the US has often led the way in various fields, it lags behind when it comes to implementing comprehensive measures to support working mothers effectively. And do you manage to have a healthy work-life balance?” inquires Wilma.

“Hmm… to be honest, I struggle every day,” admits Kelly. “We all know that balancing one’s professional responsibilities with the demands of motherhood is a challenge. But it’s all the more difficult due to the lack of affordable childcare in the US and flexibility at work. I currently work as a wealth manager and my boss isn’t really “conscious”—let’s put it that way— to the fact that I have to juggle childcare arrangements and my business constraints. This leads to long working hours everyday. I have to reconnect every single night to answer client emails once my kids are sleeping,” explains Kelly. 

“That’s really a shame. Your story makes me think about a recent study from the Conference Board, a business research organisation, which highlighted that the gender gap persists in terms of job flexibility and time off in the US. There’s definitely room for improvement there,” Stéphanie underlines, clearly affected by her friend’s testimony. 

“Absolutely, Steph! Childcare costs are so high here that it’s legitimate to wonder whether it’s still worth it to work. I’ve thought about quitting my job many times because every so often the pressure gets way too heavy to bear. But I stay since I know I would be too frustrated if I hindered my own career development. Plus, we simply wouldn’t be able to get by on a single income due to the cost of living,” says Kelly. 

“That’s indeed a terrible dilemma that no woman should have to face in our modern times!” says Wilma. 

She continues: “I remember now that I read an article that underlined the increasing number of stay-at-home mothers in the US. It referred to the lack of allowances and the fact that there’s no free or subsidised childcare to help parents. So I totally understand your internal conflict and I must say that your determination and strength deserve our greatest respect.”

“You’re amazing, Kelly!” exclaim the other friends, admiring Kelly’s resilience. 

“Thanks a lot, girls! You will make me blush,” replies Kelly shyly. “But what about you, Emi? Is the situation better for women at work in Japan?”

“Well, things aren’t perfect here, but we’re getting there in terms of gender equality, even though there’s still a discrepancy between reality and the goal,” explains Emi. “I currently work in Kyoto as a senior auditor with never-ending working days—just like you Kelly. I want to be promoted as a manager next year, but the pressure from my hierarchy is high.”

She continues: “In fact, I’ve read that in July 2023 Teikoku Databank surveyed more than 25,000 Japanese companies about the promotion of women in the workplace. The study revealed that the proportion of female managers has risen by 0.4 points since 2022 to nearly 10%. I was thrilled to read such good news! However, it’s clear that there’s still a big difference in the number of men and women in leadership positions. The government aims to reach at least 30% of female leadership, but this goal is still far off: Japan’s position in the Global Gender Gap Report for 2023 is low, ranking 125th out of 146 countries.”

“If we prefer to see the glass as half full, there’s some progress!” summarises Kelly. “Do you know why men are still more represented in managerial posts than women in Japan?”

“In fact, Japan’s labour system relies on the distinction between ‘regular’ workers, who benefit from long-term employment arrangements, and ‘non-regular’ workers, who are hired for supplementary tasks and have less stability compared to regular workers. Unfortunately, women are overrepresented in non-regular jobs as the whole system is closely linked to gender,” explains Emi.

“In which way is it linked to gender?” wonders Wilma.

“Well, sexist stereotypes are sadly deeply rooted in our society. In Japan, prevalent career paths for women typically revolve around childcare, nursing and supporting roles in healthcare, reflecting their traditional familial roles. As such, women frequently find themselves constrained in their career options, confined to roles that are conventionally associated with their domestic responsibilities. For a woman, getting a management position means working longer hours. I know that if I don’t work long overtime, very likely I won’t be promoted as a manager next year. Yet, longer working hours are incompatible with the role of married women in the Japanese family, given the strong persistence of gender biases,” explains Emi resignedly. 

“Understood,” replies Wilma. “Japanese employers need to acknowledge that the workplace shouldn’t perpetuate sexist stereotypes from home life, but rather be a space where everyone can fulfil their potential and contribute to society.” 

“Exactly! Japanese authorities should really strive to create conditions fostering a better balance between professional and private life by reshaping our work culture and promoting a flexible working environment,” points out Emi.

“Mentalities should also evolve as the responsibility for taking care of the home and children doesn’t only fall on women,” Kelly sighs. 

“I couldn’t agree more,” states Emi forcefully. “In any case, my husband and I don’t want to have children, but I can only imagine how hard it would be if we did. No wonder that the birth rate is declining in Japan. Actually, we are currently experiencing a fertility crisis,”adds Emi on a side note. 

“I really hope that you will get your well-deserved promotion. I think it’s important to underline that people without any kids also have a life outside of work that’s just as valuable and meaningful as anyone else’s,” stresses Wilma. 

“Thanks a lot Wilma!” smiles Emi gratefully. “It’s so true. I’ve always felt reluctant to say no to my boss when he asks me to stay late at work. You know, it usually seems more legitimate for employees with kids to leave early or have flexible schedules,” recognises Emi.

“It’s definitely a form of discrimination between childless employees and those with child-rearing obligations. I think the family situation should just be removed from the equation in terms of work-life balance policies. By suggesting that work-life balance matters only when tied to caregiving responsibilities, it implies that parenting is the only acceptable reason to disconnect from work. This is unfair, for sure,” asserts Wilma. 

“Definitely! I have the right to decide not to have any children and yet to have a life outside work,” claims Emi. “And what about your life in Sweden, Wilma?” 

“I’ve been with my partner, Annika, for six years now. We’ve had a daughter together through assisted reproduction in 2021, which has been legal here for same-sex couples since 2005. Freja is the joy of our life! I gotta say we’re very privileged as parents because each couple is entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave in total—so around 16 months. In fact, each parent can take up to 240 days of paid leave, but these can be shared within the couple, except for 90 days that are reserved exclusively for each parent and can’t be transferred,” replies Wilma. 

“That concept is brilliant! I love the possibility of being able to split the number of days between both parents as it fits them. That’s definitely underlying the concept of gender equality in the case of heterosexual couples,” asserts Kelly.

“I must admit that it really helped me to combine my career with my family life. It was amazing to be able to disconnect from work and spend such a long time with Freja when she was a baby. It allowed me to resume my work peacefully,” explains Wilma.

“It’s true that Sweden is a benchmark and a pioneer in that field! I’ve read recently that it ranked first in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s latest ranking of countries according to labour force participation rate,” shares Stéphanie. 

“Indeed! Did you know that, in 1974, Sweden became the first country to introduce parental leave, replacing gender-specific maternity leave? The idea is to bring in as many individuals as possible into the workforce to enhance the country’s growth. That’s why you shouldn’t be surprised to see fathers pushing prams in parks on a Monday morning in the city centre of Stockholm. It’s so cute!” stresses Wilma with a chuckle. 

“I wish I lived in Sweden,” Kelly says while winking at Wilma. 

“Yes, I feel really lucky to live here! Besides, Sweden offers affordable childcare, allowing most parents to return to work after parental leave. On top of that, school for children aged six to 19 is fully tax-financed and the majority of Sweden’s healthcare, including childbirth, is tax-subsidised,” explains Wilma enthusiastically.

“Awesome! Sweden is definitely a family-friendly country,” summarises Stéphanie. “As a Luxembourg resident, I feel that I can’t complain either,” adds Stéphanie.  

“Oh really? That’s great to hear, Steph! How’s it going on your side with your baby and work?” inquires Wilma.

“I work as a senior associate in the tax department at PwC Luxembourg, and I’ve just started my parental leave since Lily is four months old. In Luxembourg, we are entitled to eight weeks of pre-natal leave and 12 weeks of post-natal leave. We can also modulate the parental leave with different options. For instance, we can take four or six months’ full-time leave or eight or 12 months’ part-time leave at 50% of our normal working hours,” explains Stéphanie. 

“That’s quite convenient for both parents. This way they can devote more time to their child’s education. Plus, I really like the freedom given to each parent. Clearly there’s some gender equality in terms of access to parental leave in Luxembourg too,” comments Emi. 

“I certainly can’t complain, although, to be fully transparent with you, I’m a single mother now. My former partner and I decided to co-parent since the relationship wasn’t working out. It was a difficult decision, but we are both happier on our own and it’s better for Lily’s stability,” asserts Stéphanie.

“Gosh! Still, it must be difficult to be a single mother, especially with a baby. Do you have some support from the Luxembourgish state?” inquires Kelly. 

“This isn’t easy for sure, but c’est la vie. There is some support, but it isn’t specifically for single parents. Basically, during parental leave, we are entitled to an allowance paid by the Caisse pour l’Avenir des Enfants (CAE) as a replacement income. So there’s no financial pressure to resume work at the earliest, which is highly appreciated, especially in my situation,” stresses Stéphanie. 

She continues: “When resuming work, the state can provide childcare-service vouchers to contribute to childcare costs. As a single mother, I’m eligible for a single-parent tax credit.”

“Oh, that’s good for you,” replies Kelly, feeling reassured for her friend.

“Exactly! And there’s more. In Luxembourg, working mothers that are still breastfeeding—which is my case—are entitled to two periods of 45 minutes per day for breastfeeding, which are considered as working time. This is really helpful for working mothers because they can continue to breastfeed even after they have resumed work,” admits Stéphanie. 

“For sure! Companies, and our society in general, should foster breastfeeding as much as possible  because it’s so beneficial for our children—and for us too, by the way,” asserts Kelly.

“I totally agree with you Kelly,” replies Stéphanie. “I still have five months of parental leave to fully dedicate myself to my little one and I really want to enjoy it as much as possible before returning to work!”

“Speaking of which, how do you feel about going back to work after such a long time?” asks Emi. 

“Honestly, I know it will be challenging. But thanks to PwC Luxembourg’s programme ‘Back & Happy’ I feel reassured,” highlights Stéphanie.

“Sounds nice! What does it consist of exactly?” inquires Wilma.

“I must say that PwC Luxembourg is a committed family-friendly company. As such, it strives to make the transition for parents resuming work easier thanks to this programme. It entails several initiatives, including a new refurbished mummy’s room dedicated to breastfeeding, and parental coaching sessions for parents to express their concerns and difficulties and be accompanied by professionals to find solutions. Besides, there’s a parents’ community at PwC, which enables us to meet new people, and share, learn and discuss parental topics,” says Stéphanie enthusiastically. 

“What a great initiative! I believe it definitely enables a smooth transition to work. Plus, it fosters well-being at work and helps young parents to find the right work-life balance. It makes me think about the last workmonitor published by Randstad, which reinforced that workers are much more interested in work-life balance than in upward mobility. This shows that flexibility remains a major concern for workers across the world,” exclaims Wilma. 

“Exactly! That’s why I feel so lucky to work in Luxembourg, and in particular at PwC Luxembourg. We are offered flexibility  both in terms of working hours and places of work thanks to home-based work and the satellite offices. This helps us to save commuting time, which is highly appreciated. Speaking of PwC and Luxembourg, have you seen by any chance the results of PwC UK’s Women in Work Index 2023?” asks Stéphanie.

“Nope, but it seems worth the reading,” answers Wilma. 

“Without wanting to sound too chauvinistic, but the top three OECD countries in terms of women’s employment outcomes were Luxembourg, followed by New Zealand and Slovenia. If you want to deep dive into the report, you will see that it focuses on the concept of ‘motherhood penalty’”, says Stéphanie. 

Stéphanie adds: “This term—rather self-explanatory—was coined by sociologists Michelle J. Budig and Dr. Paula England to explain the disadvantages mothers face in the workplace after having their children in terms of wage penalty, hiring penalty, slower career progression for women returning to work after childbirth, and unfair share of childcare, among others. The motherhood penalty is the gender pay gap’s most significant driver.”

“I will definitely have a read of this report’s key insights. Thanks for the tip, Steph! Well girls, it was really nice catching up with you, but I gotta go now as it’s 11pm here, and I need to get some sleep,” stresses Emi. 

“Oh that’s right, we should be conscious of the time difference. Anyway, what a vibrant discussion on women at work this was! We should have regular video calls to stay in touch,” suggests Wilma. 

“For sure, let’s try to do this on a monthly basis!” proposes Kelly. 

“Will send you an invitation shortly to meet in a month at the same time if that works for you all. We could even have a virtual cocktail party! How about that?” suggests Wilma.

“Yes, please! Let’s go for it. See you girls!” reply Emi, Stéphanie and Kelly enthusiastically. 

After disconnecting, Wilma reflects on her conversation with her friends. She feels really invigorated by this catch up call and realises how much she missed her friends. She also feels shocked about the hardships encountered by them, especially Emi and Kelly’s struggle to have a proper work-life balance. 

While sending the invitation for their next call, she promises herself that she will always be there for her friends to support them as much as she can. 

What we think

Gender equality is not just a women’s issue; it’s a fundamental human right and a cornerstone of a fair and prosperous society. Let’s strive for a world where every individual, regardless of gender, has equal opportunities, rights, and respect. It’s key to build inclusive societies.

Roxane Haas, Partner and People Leader at PwC Luxembourg

Finding harmony between work and life isn’t about dividing time equally, but integrating passion and purpose seamlessly into both foundations, creating a fulfilling balance that nurtures both personal and professional growth.

Yoliana Bayona, Women and Men Leader and Director in Advisory at PwC Luxembourg
Yoliana Bayona

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