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.

“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.

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.

Housewife idolized

Germany’s “motherhood cult” has deep historical roots that date back to Martin Luther, according to Barbara Vinken, a professor at Maximilian University in Munich and author of “The German Mother.” 

“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.

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.

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.

Economic impacts

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.

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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