German powerhouse leaves working mothers behind
Germany's traditional family policies have forced German women to choose between a career and motherhood. The consequences could slow its economic momentum.
French-born Gudrun Schmidt’s first culture shock came when she told her German mother-in-law she would return to investment banking after her first child was born.Skip to next paragraph
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“You’re not going to stay home? Poor child!” her mother-in-law exclaimed.
“People say, ‘Why do you have children if you’re going to give them away?’" says Ms. Schmidt, who works for a well-known French bank and would not give her real name. Her mother-in-law, she explained, equates leaving children with a caregiver during the day with “giving them away.”
The disapproval, reflective of German popular opinion, weighed heavily on Schmidt even as she had two more children. When she was pregnant with her second child, she says she was often prevented from talking with customers. “Once you have children, you’re not seen as a whole person again," she says.
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In the 1980s and 1990s, most European countries made strides toward accommodating the needs of working women and some countries have become models for their progressive policies. But Germany’s traditional concepts of gender roles and well-entrenched infrastructure of half-day schools often force women to choose between having a career or having children. While professional mothers like Schmidt have become typical in France, in Germany they are often outcasts.
A third of German women in their mid-forties are childless, the highest proportion in Europe, suggesting that they find a career and motherhood largely incompatible. But with Germany facing anemic birth rates and labor shortages in recent decades – which critics blame on the country’s traditional conception of women’s roles and public policy that enshrines it – the government is trying to amend that perception with tax credits for childcare, more afternoon schooling, and shared parental leave to encourage fathers to get involved in child raising.
“The incompatibility is still there, but it is diminishing,” says Michaela Kreyenfeld of the Max-Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock. “It is the policy and the climate in society that’s changing – the whole system is being reformed.”
But cultural norms still keep a high proportion of German women at home with children or childless with careers.
“Many things have changed, but the old thinking is still holding women back from success in the labor market,” says Elke Holst, director of gender studies at Berlin’s German Institute for Economic Research. “What’s in the head reduces the speed of change."
According to a recent survey by the Allensbach polling institute, only 15 percent of German mothers with children younger than six support the idea of working full-time. Sixty-six percent feel part-time work is more suitable and 10 percent advocate stopping altogether.
“In Germany, the idea that it’s possible to combine family life and a career is rejected by society as a whole,” Ms. Vinken says.