Jul 24, 2008

World - Working mothers unite

DON’T be fooled by the familiar presence of a guinea-pig in a cage, or the primary colours. Something radical is afoot at the Wolkenzwerge crèche, on the sixth floor of a Berlin office block. Parents drop their children before going to work at Axel Springer, publisher of the tabloid Bild, and pick them up at 7.30pm or later. Springer, no friend of liberation movements in the 1960s, helps pay for places at Wolkenzwerge to tempt mothers back to work.That would seem less daring if it were not so rare. Germany has day-care places for only a sixth of children of under three (and that includes traditionally higher provision in the ex-communist east). This is one reason why German women lag their sisters in other rich countries in combining motherhood and work. Female employment is above average. But when (and if) they become mothers, women tend to drop out or go part-time. “So far in Germany, women had to make a choice [between children and career],” says Jeanne Fagnani of France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. French and Scandinavian women feel much less pressure.
That pressure has consequences. Because of it, German women are more reluctant than most in Europe to have children. When they do, they take prolonged leave from work, damaging their careers. Women’s average hourly wages are 22% lower than men’s, a gap exceeded in the European Union only by Slovakia, Estonia and Cyprus. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s sex may encourage some women, but not mothers: she is childless.Part of the problem is that the Nazis’ cult of motherhood outlived them (except in communist East Germany, which sent women to work and kids to day care). In capitalist West Germany until 1957, women who wanted to work had to seek permission from their husbands. A federal family minister created outrage in 1989 by suggesting kindergarten for two-year-olds. Working mothers still flinch at the word Rabenmutter, a mother who, supposedly like a raven, neglects her young.Worried about Germany’s low fertility rates, Mrs Merkel’s CDU is promoting some radical changes. First came “parents’ pay”, to encourage middle-class women to have children without wrecking their careers. Introduced in 2007, this increased the value of paid parental leave to a ceiling of €1,800 ($2,830) a month for high earners, although it cut the maximum duration from two years to one (plus two months for the second parent, usually the father). This year the government approved a law to provide enough day-care slots for 35% of children aged three or less by 2013, and to guarantee parents a right to day care once their babies are a year old. This could “break the vicious cycle” that keeps mothers away from day care because they see it as abnormal, says Gisela Erler who runs Familienservice, a firm that manages day-care centres, including Wolkenzwerge.The government seems to be pushing in the direction that younger Germans want to go. Whereas 70% of western Germans aged 65 or more believe that mothers should stay at home, fewer than half of 18-30-year-olds agree. For some women, the prospect of meaner public pensions sharpens the incentive to work. Business favours change, too. Girls gain better marks than boys in school and earn more than half of university degrees, which makes them attractive to employers struggling with skill shortages. A report by Deutsche Bank argues that firms are moving towards a collaborative “project economy” that demands more “soft skills” and flexible working practices.Germany’s birth rate jumped last year to its highest since 1990—thanks to parents’ pay, perhaps, but it may also have owed much to the buoyant economy. Fathers may be assuming more responsibility: some 18% took up the new parental-leave benefit. This was a “quiet revolution”, claimed the CDU family minister, Ursula von der Leyen. As a working mother of seven, her party might once have regarded her as an embarrassment. No longer.Yet the counter-revolutionaries are stirring. Defending “freedom of choice” for parents, conservatives in the government insisted that the expansion of day care be complemented by a €150 monthly payment to parents who prefer to raise their children at home. A television presenter sacked from her job last year for praising the Nazis’ family policies may have been speaking for a silent minority.The tax system still punishes earners of second incomes. Most primary schools send children home at noon, “which ruins the whole thing”, says Ms Erler.Social change is always slow. France’s generous family policies date back to its defeat in the Franco-Prussian war in 1871, which persuaded its leaders that the country needed more soldiers, says Ms Fagnani. Over time, bigger families required better child care outside the home, a trend encouraged by the high number of women working in farming and textiles. German women are still fighting for similar treatment. They may at last be winning

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