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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.

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The conservative government under Chancellor Angela Merkel, who hails from East Germany, has taken some of the boldest steps and has linked more childcare outside the home with economic competitiveness in the public discourse.

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Germany’s birth rates are the lowest in western Europe and in the country’s history – 7.88 births per 1,000 inhabitants, versus 13 in France. That has consequences not just for a pension and health care system that could become overwhelmed, but for the economy as a whole. 

The German labor market could “fall hopelessly behind in the international competition for the best female minds,” Ursula von der Leyen, Merkel’s labor minister, said. “The country needs women to be able to both work and have children.”

Ms. von der Leyen has looked to countries such as France and Sweden, with higher fertility rates and percentages of working moms, for policies to emulate. Sweden’s generous paternal leave policies have made it socially accepted for men to work less and share child-rearing duties with the mothers while high-quality, affordable childcare makes it easier for mothers to choose not to stay home.

As family minister during Merkel’s first term, Ms. von der Leyen passed a law requiring new fathers to take two months off work when their child is born in order to qualify for a new 14-month shared paid parental leave and promised a nursery spot for any toddler that needed one by 2013. 

With no evidence those policies prodded birth rates, von der Leyen's successor, Kristina Schröder, took a different tack, crafting a controversial plan to provide a 150 euro ($200) monthly stipend for families who care for toddlers at home instead of in a publicly financed childcare facility, providing a financial incentive for mothers who want to stay home with their children as well. 

Critics said Germany should focus on improving its public childcare, not dissuading people from using it. 

German mothers work, but ‘on the side'

Today 66 percent of German women work, but only 32 percent of mothers with small children do – a small number by European standards. When they do work, it tends to be part-time – which Holst describes as the “modernized version” of the husband-breadwinner, woman-caregiver model.

Both partners work in only 19.6 percent of German couples, compared with 38.4 percent in France. Most German mothers work part-time, while 73 percent of French mother work 30 hours or more. 

Frankfurt banker Schmidt, who has what she calls a three-quarter position, says people don’t understand why she works so much. “For my colleagues, working with three children is inconceivable,” she says. “‘But then they say, ’75 percent? Why don’t you work less?’”  

Some gender experts hope that exposure to other countries’ attitudes toward working mothers will rub off. Sophie Cour, a French-born principal economist at the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, put her four children in the on-site daycare – and her German friends noticed. 

“There is admiration. There is envy,” Ms. Cour says, adding that she hopes to whittle down “preconceived notions that ‘giving the children away’ isn’t the best for them.”

Sabine Jeiter, the German anesthesiologist, embodies this shift in thinking. She now has four children – and no qualms about putting her twin daughters in an all-day kindergarten. “If mothers don’t work, it’s not because they can’t but because they don’t want to,” she says. 

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