ABU DHABI // A shortage of government and workplace-sponsored nurseries leaves many working mothers struggling to balance the demands of home and career, a nationwide study has found.
"They don't have the options," said Samia Kazi, chief operating officer of Arabian Child, an early childhood consultancy. "So where are they ending up putting their children?
"Either they're leaving their children at home with people who don't have any background in child development … or they're taking their chances sending them to a private nursery."
Arabian Child conducted the National Early Childhood Development Childcare Study on behalf of the Ministry of Social Affairs, which has been working for years to overhaul childcare options. The agency plans a rating system for nurseries next year.
"It's not a private-sector project," Ms Kazi said. "This needs support, and heavy support, from the Government."
Between September and October, researchers surveyed staff at about 250 nurseries; about 150 nurseries responded. They also visited nurseries and interviewed parents, policy-makers and children's advocates.
There are about 11,000 businesswomen in the country, and 40 per cent of government employees are female, according to the study, released yesterday.
Of the country's 311 nurseries, about 92 per cent are privately owned, researchers estimated. They found only 26 sponsored by government agencies. Nurseries sponsored by private companies for children of staff did not respond to the survey.
"This raises concerns for the quality of work/life balance support offered for working mothers," the researchers conclude.
"The day my nanny fell ill with shingles, I had no choice but to bring my kid into work," said Khawla Saleh of Abu Dhabi. "Imagine me walking in with my little toddler. And I've done that loads, because I've had no options."
Ms Saleh, 30, an Emirati, said more companies should have in-house childcare centres.
"If workplaces offered creches, and they were certified and regulated, I think mothers would be more inclined and more supported to work more," she said.
Some workplaces are moving in that direction. Dubai Islamic Bank operates nurseries for employees in one branch in Abu Dhabi, one in Al Ain and two in Dubai. At Dubai International Financial Centre, working mothers can take their children to a privately owned nursery on site, the Hummingbird Early Learning Centre.
Women come back from maternity leave "and after that they can bring their baby here and they come down and breast feed", said Kieny Watts, the nursery's general manager. "Even as they're growing up, they will come and take their babies for lunch and a walk."
But most working mothers do not have that option.
The UAE branch of Microsoft, rated as the best company to work for in the country by Great Place to Work, does not offer an in-house nursery for employees, and neither does Bayt.com, rated eighth on the same list.
"We don't have a facility in the office, but our working mothers can bring their children in whenever they want," said Caye Bernas, an administrative assistant in the website's human resources department. "They're welcome to do that."
Ms Kazi said more employers need to understand that offering child care can increase their staff retention rate, productivity and morale.
"Setting up a good, high-quality early childcare centre is expensive," she said. "A lot of decision-makers, the government, even private-sector organisations, don't understand why they need high quality, or why they need a childcare centre. They don't understand how it can positively affect the working mothers."
Research shows other employees benefit as well, Ms Kazi said.
The Arabian Child report also examined the issue of training for nursery staff. They found that 95 per cent of childcare centre directors encourage staff to attend professional development training, but more than half said they did not have a budget for professional development.
Nursery directors said the biggest challenge they faced training workers was staff turnover.
"Why should I train a teacher who will leave me to work for my competitor?" one nursery director said.
The Arabian Child researchers called for further study on increasing staff retention.