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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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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. 

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