A Spanish worker takes a snooze during siesta


MADRID, Spain (WOMENSENEWS)–It’s almost 10 p.m. and at the Zarlenga family home in suburban Madrid, 2-year-old Malena is being impossible.

"Let’s read a story," her father, Rafa, says, in a futile effort to get the bedtime ritual started. The little girl shrieks: "No, I don’t want to go to bed!"

It’s a scene that’s repeated almost nightly. Malena’s mother, Veronica Kleinburd, normally comes home from work between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m., though on this day her boss did something he often does; he decided to hold an office meeting as she was on her way out.

"It’s almost impossible to get Malena to bed early, because she spends so little time with us," says the young mother, whose husband rarely gets home from his job before 9:30 p.m.

Kleinburd, who sells office copying machines, gave up a job with better career prospects that would have required her to come home even later. In her current job, most of her salary goes to paying a nanny who takes care of her daughter after day care. Kleinburd says she can’t help but feel guilty for not being a better parent. "I’m doing the best I can, but I can’t say it’s something that sits well with me," she says.

For Kleinburd, and countless other working women here, she has no alternative to the impossibly late hours that she must keep for work. The culprit in all this: Spain’s traditional siesta.

Source of Country’s Easygoing Fame

The siesta–or afternoon nap–may have once been a pleasant way to break up the workday. And it helped give Spain the famed image of an easygoing place.

But that was when Spain was an agrarian society. Times have changed. Office jobs have multiplied; careers have become more competitive and commuting distances have increased. Few people can go home during the day to nap.

Nonetheless, the siesta custom hangs on, and many people take two to three-hour restaurant lunches, or stay at their desks during the midday break. Most shops also close, making midday errands often impossible.

This period of enforced but often unproductive idleness means that work days stretch to more than 12 hours. Many workers, like the Zarlengas, don’t get home until 8 or 9 p.m., or even later.

The government has decided to do something about it. It passed a law, effective Jan.2, with the stated aim to make it easier for government employees to reconcile work and family life. The law establishes a standard workday of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Monday to Thursday, and finishing on Friday at 2:30 p.m. Although extra hours can be worked, the law says it’s a right for public employees "to finish their workday before 6 p.m."

New Focus on Quality of Life

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero made history after his election in 2004 by appointing women to half of his Cabinet posts. Since then, his Socialist Workers’ Party government has given priority to gender equality and quality-of-life issues.

A recent survey by Que, a daily newspaper, found that more than 9 of 10 Spaniards dislike their long workday, but many bosses cling to their extended lunch hours and keep employees in the office into evening hours as a result.

The government’s ability to change a deeply ingrained national habit is limited, however. Only about half a million people work for the national administration in a nation of 42 million inhabitants.

Anti-siesta campaigners say what’s needed is a feminist-led revolution.

"Spain’s working hours are male chauvinist working hours," says Ignacio Buqueras y Bach, director of Fundacion Independiente, or Independent Foundation, a civil society think tank in Madrid that has been leading the campaign to turn the country away from the siesta and draw media attention to the issue.

"Women are the most disadvantaged by these hours. No one should have to say, ‘I can’t be with my children because I have to make sacrifices for my career,’" he says.

Buqueras y Bach says the siesta made sense when the Spanish economy was based on farming: men spent much of the day outside the home, while women worked within. But now the long workday is in effect a "glass ceiling" that prevents women from reaching top management jobs.

Spain–along with Belgium, Poland, Greece and Italy–was among the European nations where women had a labor participation rate under 55 percent in 2003, according to a report last year from the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly.

Family Pressures at Work

Rafa Zarlenga, the father of the cranky Malena, says he sees firsthand at the company where he works–a computer consulting firm–how female workers lose professional standing by deciding to start a family.

"When they get pregnant with their first child, they immediately fall outside of the company’s growth structure," he says. "It’s clear that having children harms them in the job market." They are passed up on promotions and don’t get assigned to the most important jobs and tasks.

Lola Liceras, the employment secretary for the Madrid-based Comisiones Obreras, one of Spain’s largest labor unions, says that’s why Spain’s birthrate of 1.3 children per family is one of the lowest in Western Europe.

"It’s clear that this is one of the consequences," she says, adding that a shortage of day-care facilities and the relatively high rate of temporary employment on the Spanish job market also forces women to choose between children and career. In Spain, around 4 million people, or about one-third of the work force, have short-term employment contracts. That’s twice the average for the European Union as a whole.

"If the only way that a woman can stay in the workplace is to comply with masculine practices, then the result is logical, not to have a family," Liceras says.

Liceras says the siesta is part of a larger problem. She says the long workday in Spain is rooted in a widely shared belief that it’s more important to be at work, than to actually be doing something. She says that as a result some people resort to tricks.

"There are people who leave their coat hanging when they leave, so that it looks like they haven’t left the office," she says. "It becomes a game, so that in the end it looks like people are dedicating many hours to their jobs, but the productivity is low. It’s bad for both companies and employees."

Jerome Socolovsky is a journalist based in Madrid.