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.
(Page 2 of 3)
French women rely on state-provided childcare – all-day schooling for children age 3 and older and day care for those under 3 – to combine work and family, but Germans tend to see educating their children as a private, not public, responsibility. In western Germany, only 3 of every 100 children attend daycare. In former East Germany, where both genders typically worked and the government provided childcare, 27 percent of children now attend daycare – compared with 29 percent in France and 64 percent in Finland.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Leaving children in the care of others while a mother works is still perceived by many Germans as “abandoning” them. When Sabine Jeiter’s first child reached primary school age 10 years ago, the anesthesiologist turned down a place for the girl in an after-school program, known as a “hort.” Instead, she had her mother care for her daughter.
Why? She still remembered her own childhood, when only children coming from “problem families” were sent to a hort instead of going home for lunch. “‘Hort-kids’ had a stamp sticking to their skin,” Dr. Jeiter says. “It meant something was wrong with the family – maybe the parents had divorced, or they weren’t married.” She didn’t want her daughter to have the same label.
East vs. West Germany
The Third Reich gave mothers a starring role in Nazi ideology, giving medals of honor to those who had four or more babies and carried on the Aryan race.
There was a backlash against the emphasis on larger families after the war, but the conservative government of Konrad Adenauer, the first post-war leader of West Germany, still enshrined marriage as the cement of society with its policies – just with fewer children. His patriarchal family policies are still in place: cash allowances for families with children, half-day schooling, and a tax code that favors married couples where only one partner works, among others.
A major driver for change came from within Germany itself when reunification forced the convergence of east and west German societies and their differing expectations of women.
Well into the 1970s, West German wives needed their husbands’ permission to work, could not open bank accounts, and could hardly divorce. “In the West, it was viewed as ‘socialistic’ for women to enter the workforce,” says gender specialist Ms. Holst.
Meanwhile, the communist German Democratic Republic provided free childcare and granted access to abortions. Whether or not they wanted to, most women worked, making East Germany a test case for how government can influence thinking. “After all, we have the same roots and, before the war, we were [the] same Germany,’ Holst says.
Reunification prompted Germany’s first real discussion about women’s role. “After unification, both women in the West and the East changed,” Holst explains. West German women began requesting some of provisions in East Germany that made it easier for mothers to work, such as free childcare, while East German women began entertaining the idea of not working, or choosing their own career – decisions previously not really up to them.
But a breakthrough came in 1996. Facing legal action because of a shortage of kindergartens, the conservative government was forced to make it mandatory for communities to provide a kindergarten spot for all children who wanted one. The federal government also had to help local communities pay for it.
And a wake up call came in 2001, when Germany came in 21st out of 32 countries in an international comparative study of school performance. Education experts said Germany’s lack of early education and socialization opportunities for toddlers were partly responsible for the bad results. Shortly after, the government pledged to create 30,000 daycare spots by 2012 and expand all-day afternoon schooling.