The plight of Germany’s female workers & all the reasons why it could change

Laetitia@Work #2

Hi everyone,

Although I was born and raised in France and lived most of my life in France and in the UK, I have a particular interest in Germany. I actually have more family in Germany than anywhere else. That’s why I want my children to learn German, too, and I plan to live in Germany with my family for a couple of years starting in January 2021. The Brexit drama may also have played a role. Somehow it made me want to invest more in French-German dialogue, and focus on the core of Europe at a time when many people seem to want to see it destroyed.

As a future of work specialist, I am therefore developing an interest in Germany’s “Zukunft der Arbeit”. There are similarities with France: both economies were strong in the 20th century and find it challenging to embrace the 21st. Both are weak when it comes to developing successful tech companies. Indeed Germany focuses obsessively on industry and export to the detriment of everything else. 

Like France (but even worse) Germany also has a “problem with women” in the workplace: gender pay gap, high female poverty, harassment, discrimination, and a thick glass ceiling. As it is struggling to let go of the strong male-dominated paradigm that made its industry so strong, it can’t fully embrace an economy dominated by digital, service and care workers (many of whom are female). 

In this newsletter I will focus on the plight of Germany’s female workers, but also on all the reasons why their situation could get better in the near future. Some recent trends have gone largely unnoticed outside of Germany but are already making things different for German women. Read on.

In Germany, women do not “have it all”

Germany is a paradox. It’s the European country led by the world’s most powerful woman—and the second longest-serving chancellor in Germany’s history (Merkel would need 750 more days in office to beat Helmut Kohl). But it’s also a country where few of the people with economic, political and academic power are female.

And yet German women rarely stay at home! On average, more German women work than in most other OECD countries. According to OECD stats, the labour force participation rate of German women aged 15 to 64 was 74.3% in 2018. That’s more than in France (68.5%), the UK (73.6%), the US (68.2%) and the OECD (64.6%). 

The number one problem is that more than 40% of women work part time in Germany, which is more than in the UK (about 40%), France (30.7%), or the US (25%). It’s as if German women’s high participation in the workforce was conditioned by their remaining able to look after the children after school. And school finishes early in the day in Germany. So either you don’t have a child and you can work full time (many women choose that option) or you do, but then as a mother you have to be fully dedicated to your child(ren). Having children is a woman’s thing in Germany.

The now infamous Hartz reforms of the early 2000s led by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder imposed cutbacks in social welfare benefits for the long-term unemployed and introduced a new low-wage sector. The so-called “mini-jobs” introduced as part of Schröder’s reform created a new class of workers employed in “450 euro jobs” (often secondary jobs) mostly in retail, catering, domestic services. It goes without saying that this new class of working poor is disproportionately composed of women. France’s fascination with this aspect of the German “model” is ludicrous.

Part-time work affects earnings progression and many women’s careers hit a thick glass ceiling. Therefore the gender pay gap in Germany is staggeringly high. At 21%, Germany’s gender pay gap is five percent worse than the EU average (with only Iceland and the Czech Republic trailing). Furthermore, very few women make it to executive positions. Finding a woman on a board is like finding a needle in a haystack. The absence of women in leadership positions is quite extreme in Germany

The same is true of academia, where few women make it to the top in Germany (only 1 in 5 full professors is a woman). It’s all about “Herr Doktors” and “Herr Professors”, to the extent that the very idea of expertise and academic prestige is naturally only associated to men. (German honorifics are quite a thing, seriously.) 

The very unequal division of paid and unpaid work also means women are more exposed to financial risk. When they divorce they are more likely to experience a serious income decrease. Their shorter, less intensive work lives and less ambitious careers explain why they have low pensions: women’s pension income is only half that of men! And the gender wealth gap is dramatic.

So one thing is that women are a lot poorer, and another is that a large number of them choose not to have children. Many more than in other OECD countries. Germany’s birth rate is low at 1.5 (compared to 1.8 in the US and 1.96 in France). It is common for educated women with professional ambition simply not to want children. Or to finally choose to have one child at age 40. It used to be said that it was mostly women with no professional ambition who had children in Germany. Either a career or motherhood (and the risk of poverty).

Why things are changing in Germany

By global standards, the French have fairly good public services when it comes to childcare and early education, which makes it a bit easier for single-parent families (in particular women) to combine work and parenthood. The French “école maternelle” starts at age 3 and is free and universal. But free (or very cheap) childcare and early education is now even better in Germany than in France. The new public services that have been implemented have largely gone unnoticed outside of Germany, but they’ve completely changed the situation. Now things are changing fast.

In an interesting (French) research paper by France Stratégie (thank you, Bruno Palier, for bringing your work to my attention!) titled “Places en crèche : pourquoi l’Allemagne fait mieux que la France ?” (“childcare: why Germany is doing better than France”), the authors explain that Germany has improved its crèche services spectacularly since the early 2000s. When Germany received its bad PISA ranking in 2000 (it’s been called the “PISA shock” since), Germans understood they needed to invest massively in early education to give all children more opportunities to develop their cognitive abilities and move upwardly. And invest massively they did. 

Within 15 years, childcare and early education became better in Germany than in France. They made the system quite flexible by putting local authorities in charge, but the services that were developed are neither low-cost nor low-quality. What proved particularly effective was that Germany made childcare an enforceable right associated with sanctions: families that aren’t offered childcare can sue the local authorities and obtain damages. 

In just a decade the career prospects of women have improved considerably. Women now have better career opportunities even when they are mothers. As a result, Germany’s low fertility rate has gone up slowly but steadily since the mid-2000s. “Between 2006 and 2017 it rose from 1.33 to 1.57. (...) Germany’s fertility rate has pulled away from Italy’s and Spain’s”, explains this Economist article “Kinder surprise: Why Germany’s birth rate is rising and Italy’s isn’t”. The number of babies born in 2018 was higher than in 2017, with a spike in the number of women becoming mothers at the age of 40 or older. (And no, it’s not just the influx of migrants with higher fertility rates!)

The French, however, don’t really want to know about Germany’s improved public services. The France Stratégie report barely received any attention and was almost “buried” by the decision makers it was meant to inspire. When it comes to public services, French authorities prefer to wallow in self-satisfaction: a comparable “PISA shock” in France in 2000 did not have the same effect. Strangely, France is more interested in imitating the 20-year-old disastrous Hartz reforms than Germany’s 15-year reforms to improve early childcare services and education.

Things are far from perfect of course. For one, childcare and schools still finish too early in the day. So mothers are still trapped in part-time activities. There’s room for improvement. German women are sometimes blamed for their plight (accused of not being ambitious enough), but they’re anything but submissive creatures. They’ve largely already transformed the male-driven culture that was dominant between the 1930s and the 1970s (with the traumatic Third Reich legacy). It used to be that mothers who had other interests besides raising their children (a career) were seen as Rabenmütter, i.e. bad “raven” mothers neglecting their children. Not anymore.

Feminism is not weak in Germany. In fact there’s a long history of feminism. It was strong in Germany during the so-called Wilhelmine period (during the reign of Emperor Wilhelm II, i.e. between the resignation of Bismarck—1890—and WWI). Women and women’s rights groups transformed traditional institutions and obtained women’s suffrage in 1919, long before the UK (1938), and France (1944). In reaction to nazi culture, Germany’s second-wave feminism emerged strongly, with iconic figures like Alice Schwarzer

Also, culture and infrastructures were quite different in East Germany where women were encouraged to have it all. They had access to childcare. Women having careers was valued by the communist government. To this day more East-German mothers work full-time than do their West-German counterparts. Even as many women from the East moved West to find jobs after Reunification, their (unchanged) attitudes towards work and motherhood “infiltrated” the more conservative communities they were joining. In many ways, eastern women with different expectations and behaviours have somewhat changed the culture across Germany.

Last but not least, the economy is changing. German politicians may still obsess over the industry, but more and more workers are turning away from industrial jobs. More and more work in digital jobs, in services, in Germany’s work-intensive healthcare sector (fuelled by population ageing), for example. More workers escape the traditional corporate organisation of work by embracing freelancing. Germany’s acute workers shortage is bound to accelerate the cultural transformation towards more female empowerment. In a German book titled Sheconomy (Bertelsmann Verlag, 2019) which I intend to read soon, sociologist Christiane Funken argues that the future of work is female. But more on that in another newsletter!

Content related to this week’s newsletter:


  • 🎙️ “Deporting Mexicans”: episode 213 of the very good London Review of Books “Talking Politics” podcast is dedicated to US immigration policy, in particular regarding Mexicans. There were Mexican deportations from the southern United States in the 1930s. How does it fit into the longer story of US immigration policy?

  • 🗞️ “Three Theories for Why You Have No Time”, Derek Thompson, The Atlantic, December 2019: how come we feel overwhelmed all the time? New technologies were supposed to make our lives easier, yet, we’ve never felt busier. It’s the Parkinson’s Law: the phenomenon that “work expands to fill the available time.” It also applies to housework. Indeed Betty Friedan already wrote about this in The Feminine Mystique!

  • 🗞️ “The Terror Queue”, Casey Newton, The Verge, December 2019: a fascinating (long-read) piece about these moderators (mostly contractors) who help filter extremely violent content out of Google & YouTube: a lot of them suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome because the violence they’re exposed to is so extreme.

  • 📚 Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (2016): the comedian’s stories from his South African childhood are not just hilarious, they’re also one of the most edifying texts I’ve read about South Africa, and contain profound thoughts about human nature. I loved the book!

Bis dann, tschüß everyone!