How Germany punishes mothers

Laetitia@Work #40

Hi everyone,

It’s been a long time since my last newsletter. I must say 2021 has been particularly taxing so far because of family loss, never-ending pandemic-related constraints, Kafkaesque bureaucratic hurdles in a new country (Germany) and just sheer exhaustion. I knew that in spite of the vaccines 2021 wouldn’t necessarily bring much relief. But I didn't expect that for me this year would be much worse than the previous one.

The one thing I’d like to share with you in this newsletter is what I learned about how Germany treats its mothers. There are many sad facts about Germany's gender gap in the labour market that I knew in the abstract. But as recently as January 2020, my second Laetitia@Work newsletter was deliberately optimistic. Titled “The plight of Germany’s female workers & all the reasons why it could change”, it had an upbeat, glass-half-full message: yes, the gender pay gap is high but things are getting better because Germany has made childcare more accessible and is encouraging mothers to do more paid work.

Living in Germany since October 2020, I've come to realise I was too naïve. Not only is the gender pay gap one of the widest in Europe, which is shameful enough for a country that’s supposed to be one of Europe’s richest, but the situation is not getting better. For German women, the only viable way to be economically independent and experience a sense of freedom in life is to “choose” not to have children. That’s why so many educated women forego motherhood altogether and/or don’t find it appealing in the first place.

The pandemic has made the situation of German mothers clearer and undeniable. Whatever progress may have occurred over the past decades could take a considerable step backwards. The gender gap is likely to rise significantly. So is female poverty in old age. Growth will stall as a result. And the country’s labour shortage will be all the worse. For me the saddest part of it is that the situation doesn’t seem to bother Germans that much. 

That’s why I’d like to share a few thoughts about German mothers and why the pandemic was a disaster for them👇💡

With Covid, German mothers really got screwed

A year ago the world was looking at Germany for its prowess in bringing children back-to-school. Schools were improving their ventilation. They were testing students for Covid regularly. It seemed Germany had it all figured out. In reality it had not yet had that large a number of contaminations. Contrary to what Germans thought at the time, the country didn’t owe this relative success to their superior management of the health crisis or to their medical excellence, but just to sheer luck. 

Alas the luck didn’t last and Germany got a lot more cases in autumn 2020. Given the country’s high proportion of vulnerable people—22% of the population is over 65—it decided to close down the schools to slow down the spread of the virus. Schools shut their doors for many more months than they did in neighbouring France which made different political choices concerning school closures. 

When my family and I moved to Bavaria in October 2020 we were hopeful that our children would go to school (albeit with masks on) and experience an enriching linguistic and cultural immersion. That’s not what happened. Because school is mandatory in Germany, my 9-year-old son had to attend an underwhelming 45 minutes a day of online school on Microsoft Teams, without knowing anybody in his class and without understanding the language. 

In these circumstances I would clearly have preferred no school at all (as had been the case for us earlier in France in 2020). I became trapped in a situation that seemed very alien to me but very familiar to German mothers. Unlike most German families, ours is usually an egalitarian family as my partner Nicolas is as involved as a father as I am as a mother. But because I’m the one who speaks better German, I was the one in charge of helping our son do his homework. And I wasn’t free to choose the homework or the workload. It was like being somebody’s employee, except I wasn’t paid. What an irony!

And there was lots of homework. I ended up spending as many as 3 hours a day doing homework with my son, on top of my full-time (paid) workload and all my (unpaid) domestic chores. For months on end, like many mothers across the world, I was overwhelmed and angry. How could I have thought I would escape this trap just because ours is an egalitarian partnership, our children aren’t that little (9 and 12) and I’m an ardent champion of parental laziness

Why such a difference between France and Germany? Cynics will say France has fewer vulnerable citizens (its population is younger) and/or a preference for the welfare of its young. Also France’s economic reality and labour market are very different from Germany’s. Only a minority of French mothers work part-time. The country can’t do without them working outside the home. The French accepted the risk of contamination because it would have been too costly not to. Meanwhile Germany could close its schools because an overwhelming majority of German mothers (two thirds) only work part-time and take on nearly all the parental workload.

There’s another irony in all this. It’s unclear to what extent school closures actually slowed the spread of the virus:

“Deciding whether to close schools to contain the spread of Covid-19 requires balancing the harm such closures inflict on families against their effectiveness in stopping the spread of disease. [There’s] evidence from Germany that school closures did not contain infections among young people or adults in the summer of 2020 – when infection rates were low – or during the pandemic’s autumn resurgence. Thus, the benefits of school closures may not outweigh their costs to children and parents, particularly mothers.” 

Germany’s motherhood penalty is extremely high

The so-called motherhood penalty exists in nearly all countries in the world: once a woman becomes a mother, her career will stall, she will suffer more discrimination at work, be forced into part-time work, and see her revenues plateau or decrease, putting her at higher risk of poverty or dependency. But that penalty is not the same in every country. Among rich countries, it’s particularly bad in Japan, Korea… and Germany. These countries have not made childcare widely available. They rely more on unpaid domestic work and created extra incentives to keep women at home.

The post-war boom years in Germany were not particularly friendly to career women. With schools functioning only until lunch time, the women who did join the workforce in the decades after the war were expected to be childless. Those who became mothers would have to quit work—all while relying on their husband’s generous pay. Mothers were strongly encouraged to stay in the kitchen and be the sole carer of children under 5: there were few if any childcare options and the tax system would make it much cheaper for the household when the woman stayed home (it still does). 

This changed somewhat after the 1970s. More mothers started working part-time.  The country needed more service workers and couldn’t do without them. At over 70%, the female employment rate in Germany is today over 10 percentage points higher than the OECD average! But 47% of all German women work part-time. In France less than 30% of women do. (In the UK it’s about 40%). The proportion of mothers who work part-time is staggering in Germany: 66% of them work part-time against only 6% of fathers. 

With fewer career prospects, a strong tax incentive to make less money than their spouse and a labour market that will punish them for looking after their children for several years, most of these mothers will remain trapped in low-paid, part-time service work. Those of them who are single or divorced are at risk of falling into poverty. Many remain trapped in bad marriages (is it a coincidence if the divorce rate is lower in Germany than in France?) One might think that because it’s the norm for mothers to stop working after the birth of a child, the labour market cannot take it against them. But no. The German labour market will use it against them.

That’s why the motherhood penalty is higher in Germany than it is in most OECD countries. In the US, there is no universal paid leave and there are too few childcare options. But fewer US mothers quit work for a long time and more of them work full time, so the economic penalty isn’t as high in the US. By contrast, according to a recent paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, ten years after the birth of a child, German mothers experience a drop in salary of 61%!! (Compare that with 21% for Danish mothers and 40% for UK and US mothers).

In her book The Double X Economy, Linda Scott devotes several pages to the situation of German mothers:

“Perhaps surprisingly, Germany’s three-year paid maternity leave, one that women in other countries covet, was among the conservative policies introduced in the 1970s. But no day care facilities for children under three were authorized or built, by either the public or the private sector. That meant mothers had precious few childcare alternatives, whether they took leave or not. When children started school, mothers still did not receive a break, because all the way through the secondary level, German school is, even now, only a half day. Mothers whose children have finished school have a hard time getting good jobs, having been out of the full-time workplace for fifteen years.”

To be fair, some schools do offer full-day options today. But not all schools do. And strangely enough it’s mostly immigrant or expat parents who will send their children to a full-day school. We are among the foreigners who registered our child to the Ganztagsschule (full-day school), but due to Covid, there were only a few weeks of Ganztagsschule this year. The pressure on German mothers is too high: they may be seen by fellow Germans as bad mothers if they send their kids to the full-day school. Or they won’t have that option in the nearby school. 

Had I been German, I wouldn’t have become a mother

There’s no doubt about it in my mind: had I been raised and educated in Germany and had I started my career there, I wouldn’t have had children. Had I lived in Germany with young children, my career would have taken a massive hit. I’d be significantly poorer and more economically dependent. I understand why so many educated women “choose” not to have children. Who would you want a 61% motherhood penalty? Who would want to be that economically dependent and devalued? I wouldn’t.

The fallacious idea that women choose not to be mothers is something I tackled in a previous newsletter. It would really be a choice if you didn’t have to take a 61% hit. Then you’d be free to actually choose. Likewise German mothers do not choose not to work (or to work part-time): an overwhelming majority of them would work full-time if they could. The only choice a German woman has is between being an economically dependent person with child(ren) or a more independent person without child(ren).

A very high proportion of German women say they do not want children. I would have been one of them. As a rule, the more educated you are, the fewer children you want. That’s because the loss is higher for women who could have a more rewarding career. (All that is quite different in France: when it comes to motherhood, there’s no gap between educated and less educated women. In fact, it’s somewhat easier for educated ones because they have higher revenues and can afford childcare and domestic help.)

After years of effort, policies to make childcare more available and encourage female work, Germany succeeded in increasing its fertility rate. It went from something like 1.3 (like Italy) to 1.5. Alas I have no doubt that the pandemic-related surplus of motherhood penalty will ruin years of effort. Wanna bet it will be lower in 2022? What Linda Scott wrote in her book is likely to continue to be true over the next few years:

“As a consequence of this wrongheaded set of policies, the number of “permanently childless” women in Germany is the highest in Europe. Childlessness is the new normal.” 

You could think the motherhood penalty only concerns women who are mothers. But it concerns all women, including those without children. Indeed employers tend to discriminate more against women who could become pregnant if pregnancy comes with a three-year break. That’s why the situation of mothers on the labour market should be a subject of concern to all women. Let me quote Linda Scott again:

“These policies also affect the job prospects of all working women. When employers think about hiring a young female candidate, they can’t help realizing that if she becomes pregnant while employed, she will be on leave for three year, and then there is only a small chance she will ever come back. This is a huge disadvantage for women coming into the workforce, and their representation shows it. (...) Forcing qualified women to give up their careers and to sacrifice their education and experience, particularly when the labor supply is set to dwindle dangerously, is a poor strategy for staying afloat in an aging-population scenario. Furthermore, millions of women now entering old age will, as a result of past policies and practices, either have very small pensions or none at all.”

It’s not just a problem for women. Labour shortages are so acute that they put future economic growth at risk in Germany. There just aren’t enough workers for the country to keep its wealth in the future. Yet women continue to be an untapped pool of talent.

It would be quite easy to leverage that unexploited pool of talent. Often I like to say that there are no easy solutions to complex problems. But in this particular case there is enough evidence to understand what the most effective solutions could be. The 3 solutions I’ll list are taboo in Germany, but I’ll list them anyway:

  1. Build and develop full-day childcare and full-day schools. Make it pedagogically appealing. Exciting activities and quality childcare are better for a child than being bored at home with a depressed mum! There’s been progress on that front in recent years, but not enough. How can you work full-time and have a career if school finishes at 1pm?

  2. Change the tax system so there is no incentive to have unequal revenues within the household. Right now a lot of efforts towards more equality are undermined by the way households are taxed. A woman with no revenues can’t get back to earning money because it would cause her household to pay much more in taxes.

  3. Don’t subsidise 3-year leaves that will harm women's chances to go back to work and be independent. Perhaps one day the labour market won’t punish people for leaving work for a few years. In this better world, mothers as well as fathers would be free to devote more time to being a parent. But today employers punish people who care for others.

👩‍💻 For Welcome to the Jungle, I wrote new pieces: Retour au bureau : c'était mieux avant, mais pour qui ?4 leçons de management à piquer aux corona-parents, La voiture de fonction est-elle devenue has been ?Le bullshit à gogo du “retour au bureau”… And also a review (in English) of Kevin Roose’s new book: Futureproof: 9 rules for humans in the age of automation.

🎙️ I was invited to French radio, on France Inter! The show was called “Un monde nouveau” and was hosted by Sonia Chironi. You can listen to the podcast here. 🎧

🗞️ I did an interview about work in 2030 with Jeanne Deplus.

🎙️ There are new Building Bridges podcasts! How Do We Make Work Better? with Roy Bahat, No Future of Work without Empathy with Sophie WadeCosmopolitanism in the 21st Century with Simon Kuper 🎧  

📺 My next “Café Freelance” event with Coworkees is about freelancing and time management 🇫🇷 My panel will feature Diane Ballonad Rolland & Marielle CuirassierJoin us on September 23 at 9:30 CET!


👩‍🎓 What’s Wrong With Sex Between Professors and Students? It’s Not What You Think, Amia Srinivasan, The New York Times, September 2021: “Therapists are taught to anticipate and negotiate the fact that their patients will often develop feelings for them — what Freud called “transference.” They are taught that they must harness those feelings and direct them toward the therapeutic aim — the well-being of the patient — rather than responding to those feelings in kind. In contrast, discussions of classroom ethics are usually confined to mandatory sexual harassment training, put in place by administrators anxious to avoid lawsuits. Unsurprisingly, such top-down training rarely speaks to the specifics of teaching: the particular dynamics, risks and responsibilities of the classroom.”

😊 The Secret to Happiness at Work, Arthur C. Brooks, The Atlantic, September 2021: “To be happy at work, you don’t have to hold a fascinating job that represents the pinnacle of your educational achievement or the most prestigious use of your “potential,” and you don’t have to make a lot of money. What matters is not so much the “what” of a job, but more the “who” and the “why”: Job satisfaction comes from people, values, and a sense of accomplishment.”

🇩🇪 It’s Election Season in Germany. No Charisma, Please!, Katrin Bennhold , The New York Times, September 2021: “A bold vision for change has never been a vote winner in Germany. Konrad Adenauer, the first postwar chancellor, won an absolute majority for the Christian Democrats by promising “No Experiments.” Helmut Schmidt, a Social Democrat, once famously said, “If you have visions you should go to the doctor.”

See you soon (if German schools remain open this autumn) 🤗