Missing: Germany's Women Workers

WESTERN Germany may be Europe's mightiest economy - but where are the women?

Only 13 percent of top management jobs in west Germany are held by women, far less than in France (22 percent) and trailing Denmark (15 percent), Italy (15), and Belgium (13). Moreover, the percentage of west German women working at all is below average in Europe. (See chart.)

One reason for this is the nature of the German economy. It is built on machine tools, cars, chemicals - areas that don't hold much appeal for women in Germany.

Not to be discounted, though, is the fact that west Germans tend to view work and family roles more traditionally than other west Europeans. Call it "German romanticism," says Ingrid Barbara Simon of the federal Ministry for Women and Youth.

This traditionalism is not limited to men. Many women here are content and proud to be homemakers.

Antje Franz belongs to the large group of educated, well-trained women who have happily given up work to have children. An attorney, she landed her first job in a Berlin law firm, but she quit after eight months when she became pregnant and her husband was transferred to Bonn. She just had her second baby.

"My mother was a housewife," she says, "and in the back of my mind I can't help thinking it would be bad for the children if I worked too much." Ms. Franz's female friends, most of whom have professional training as well, stopped working when they had children. A seasoned traveler in Europe and the United States, Franz concludes that Germans are simply "more conservative."

Evidence of this conservatism is easy to find: It was only two years ago that Germany's high court ruled that a woman could keep her maiden name whether her husband approved or not. Night work was prohibited for women until the court struck down the ban last year. Up until 1991, it was perfectly legal - and common - to ask a woman at a job interview if she was pregnant, a question Americans would flag as discriminatory. (This should be viewed in light of health and safety obligations that employers here must fulfill for pregnant employees.)

Polls in west Germany show both sexes supporting traditional divisions of labor. In a 1988 poll by the magazine Brigitte, the majority of West German women aged 18 to 33 said the best thing for young children was to be cared for by their mothers. Their opinion was reinforced by their partners, 88 percent of whom said they would not be willing to cut back on work hours upon the arrival of a baby.

On the other hand, the Brigitte poll also showed that young women in West Germany had their eyes on the working world: 82 percent of the women in the poll wanted to combine work and family (although far fewer - 20 percent - wanted full-blown careers).

The federal government has focused on ways to blend work and family life, and in recent years it created one of the most generous child-rearing leave and benefits systems in Europe. (See related story, below.)

But, while the benefits apply equally to fathers and mothers, only a handful of fathers take advantage of them. Sociologists say this is because most families don't want to give up a father's higher income, even though he is just as eligible to take child-rearing leave.

The structure of west German society reinforces the roles of women as homemakers and men as breadwinners. Those mothers who want or need full-time jobs outside the home, and especially for Germany's 1.8 million single parents (93 percent of whom are women), find that the system works against them.

NFANT and toddler care is virtually nonexistent in west Germany. There is publicly funded day care for 3-to-6-year-olds, but not enough. A new law promises to make up the 600,000-slot deficit by 1996.

As a rule, child-care facilities - as well as most schools - are open only half days, so one parent must be home to cook the traditional hot midday meal for children and supervise them in the afternoon. By comparison, all-day school is the norm in Belgium, France, Spain, Sweden, Britain, Ireland, and the United States.

Any parent would find it a challenge to juggle a full-time job and household chores, since German stores lock their doors at 6:30 p.m. on weekdays and at 2 p.m. on Saturdays. They are closed Sundays. A major controversy erupted in 1989 when a new law allowed two more hours of shopping on Thursday evenings and a full day one Saturday a month.

"Everything is set up so that only one person can head the family," complains Barbara Stiegler, a specialist on women's issues for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which is affiliated with the left-of-center Social Democratic Party.

Given these systemic constraints, it's not surprising that 30 percent of the women who work in west Germany are employed part-time. Part-time work accounts for nearly the entire increase of women in the work force over the past 20 years.

Those who want to change shopping and school hours are up against powerful institutions that maintain that the present system is good for families. Unions, for instance, argue that if stores stay open later, workers (mostly female sales clerks) would be away from their families longer and family life would suffer.

But the German family is already troubled. "Family values are decreasing," says Gisela Helwig of Cologne, an author and expert on women's issues.

Over the last 20 years, the divorce rate rose markedly, from 17 percent in 1970 to 34 percent in 1990. Germans also want fewer children. The birth rate in west Germany has declined from 2 percent in 1970 to 1.35 percent in 1990 - the lowest in the European Community except for Italy.

Helga Stodter, whose foundation in Hamburg tracks the progress of German women in management, points to a few trends that promise a more active role for women in the workplace.

First, more women are entering university than ever before (though only 5.5 percent of professors are women).

Second, the low birth rate in Germany will eventually force employers to hire more women. Although there is widespread unemployment in Germany today, by 2010 more women and more foreigners will be needed to support the economy, according to the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin.

Third, young German women are demanding more than their mothers did. Ms. Stodter says: "Self-confidence among younger women has strongly climbed."

* Part two of a two-part series. Part one appeared yesterday.

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