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In most fields, German women lag behind their counterparts elsewhere in Europe. They tend to be paid less, lose their jobs faster and stay out of work longer — and in all economic measures, they fare far worse than German men (earning 12% less on average, according to the Institute for Labor Market and Professional Research). In a survey of women's presence in the workforce sponsored by the World Economic Forum last year (Gender Gap Ranking), Germany placed 20th out of 58 developed and developing countries. The same survey ranked German women 28th in job opportunities and 34th in educational attainment. Fewer women were elected to the Bundestag last year than in 2002. Only 21% of the top jobs in the German corporate world and in public service are filled by women, and female CEOs are rarer than hen's teeth. Will Germany's first first lady make a difference?

She has ample reasons to try. No rapidly aging society — and Germany is one — can afford to waste the economic potential of half its population. But if Germany is to get the most out of its women, it needs to provide them with adequate opportunities to work. At present, it doesn't do so. Indeed, the country risks being trapped in a vicious cycle; those women who are wooed into the workplace find it so difficult to combine family and work that, increasingly, they choose not to have children. That just exacerbates the demographic challenge.

Of German women aged 34-40, 30% are childless, twice as many as in France. Among academics and top managers, the percentage is higher still. If birthrates continue to decline, the country will one day have a workforce too small to support the social and medical programs that its elderly will need. Previous governments have sounded the alarm about this scenario — and then done little or nothing about it. Child-care provision remains poor, and there are few incentives to help women go back into work once they have started families.

"The Mutterkreuz ideology still lingers," says Barbara Bierach, 50, an author from Munich living in New York City. That ideology, which has its roots deep in German culture and takes its name from medals for motherhood handed out during the Third Reich, holds that women are biologically predestined to bear and nurture children to adulthood. Bierach, who wrote a book called The Stupid Sex (about women, not men) in 2002, says that German women are just as likely to propagate the idea as their male compatriots: "Career mothers' worst enemy is not the testosterone-ridden boss but the neighborhood earth mother," she says. "If a mother is not home at 1 p.m. to cook spaghetti for her kids she is judged to be a Rabenmutter." (The word translates as raven mother, a slur based on the misconception that the jet-black birds neglect their young.) It's a phrase heard often in German debates on the role of women. Says Renate Künast, 50, the co-chair of the Green Party's parliamentary group in Berlin, "The word must be dropped from the German vocabulary. The word Rabenvater [raven father] does not even exist."

Yet the surprising thing is this: far from challenging stereotypes, says Martina Ritter, a sociologist at the Fulda University of Applied Sciences, younger Germans seem to be embracing them, and participating in a "re-traditionalization of gender roles in German families." Two recent studies, one commissioned by Germany's Family Ministry, found that even couples who believe in sexual equality revert to traditional roles the moment their first child is born. The State Institute for Family Research, based in Bamberg, Bavaria, notes that "there is a remarkable tenacity in the traditional division of labor in families." Nearly 80% of men surveyed by the Institute praised parental leave, but few took the option themselves — mostly because they earn more than their partners, say researchers. Ulla Bock, a sociologist at the Free University in Berlin, put the point starkly: "There are these weird breaks in emancipatory progress, and we are in one," she says. "There are more and more young people who want to live according to the old values."

Ursula von der Leyen, 47, Germany's new Family Minister, says: "The question is not whether women will work or not. They will work. The question is whether they will have children or not." Of course, plenty of German women do both. Von der Leyen herself had seven children while building a career in medicine before she entered politics as State Minister for Family, Women, Health and Social Affairs in Lower Saxony in 2003. But her situation is far from typical. She spent her childhood in Belgium, where the concept of the Rabenmutter doesn't seem to have taken hold, and is rich enough to pay for child support when she's out helping to run the country. And she knows that she's a rarity. Indeed, Von der Leyen worries that so few women leaders have children, and that so few mothers are in positions of power. "In Germany, we've made a childless lifestyle almost a prerequisite for a good career and the ability to take on a position of leadership," the Minister says. "Of course this gives a fatal signal to young people between 20 and 25 — if you don't want to rule out becoming Chancellor one day, you are better off not having children."

That message echoes from workplace to school gates. "I was often asked why I was having children if I didn't take care of them," recalls Kerstin Niethammer-Jürgens, 46, a lawyer and mother of five from Berlin. "I never heard these remarks from men, only from women. Perhaps they envied me, but my impression was that they had this basic conviction that a mother must not act that way, that it could not be good for children." Mirjam Heydorn, 51, a lawyer and mother of two in Frankfurt, agrees. "You are reproached from all sides," she sighs. Heydorn remembers once asking a judge to reschedule a court appointment so that she could attend to her child. He replied, "Are you a mother or a lawyer?" Heydorn said, "Are you a judge or a father?" Predictably, the judge told her his wife was home taking care of the kids.

Compared to many of its European neighbors, Germany is woefully undersupplied with day-care facilities. According to a 2001 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, just 10% of children under 3 have access to day care in Germany, compared with 64% in Denmark, 34% in the U.K. and 29% in France. Germany gave the world the word kindergarten, but the services they supply are limited. Most preschools turf their charges out at noon, forcing parents — usually mothers — to knock off work at lunch. Small wonder that employers are skeptical about employing mothers with small children. When Karin Boenkost — a graduate mathematician and IT specialist, now 43 — got her first job in the accounts department of a major Frankfurt bank, she recalls getting along "really well" with her boss. After two months she informed him she was pregnant. She says that their working relationship lost its bloom and her initial contract was not renewed. A few years and two children later, Boenkost returned to work. Then, during a round of cutbacks, her bosses told her they would have to let her go. "The reason I was fired — they told me straight to my face — was that, unlike my male colleagues, I had always left the office on time because I had to pick up the kids," says Boenkost. She is now self-employed. Perhaps reflecting the challenges implicit in traditional careers, self-employment among German women has increased, up 60% in the past decade, twice the rise seen among women across Europe.

Not surprisingly, many German mothers see part-time jobs as the answer to the problem of finding a career. No less than 85% of part-time jobs are held by women, and one-third of all women in employment work part-time. In Sweden, by contrast, 71% of women are in full-time jobs — only 3% fewer than their male counterparts. Why the difference? One factor stands out: 85% of Swedish toddlers have places in child-care facilities. This is the fruit of long-established Swedish policies aimed at bringing mothers back into the workforce; provision of child care is key but so too is legislation to ensure family-friendly attitudes in the workplace. Swedish employers, for example, are required by law to permit parents of children up to 8 years old to work shorter hours. German business, by contrast, sets its own agenda — and with rigid attitudes to working hours and less than 2% of companies operating their own kindergartens or day-care centers, there's little to cheer working parents.

If having kids is a barrier to professional success for German women, opting to remain childless is no guarantee of equal treatment in the job market. Less than 11% of the seats on company supervisory boards are occupied by women, compared to 17.5% in the U.S. and 12.5% in the U.K. There isn't a single female CEO in the dax list of the top 30 German blue-chip companies. Those who slog their way through the ranks find their progress slower than that of their male equivalents, and their remuneration less generous. According to a 2005 study by Sonja Bischoff, an economics professor at Hamburg University, there are marked differences between the salaries of men and women in equivalent senior management positions. There are more than twice as many women as men earning less than €50,000 a year, while 1.5 times more male than female managers draw down salaries above €75,000 a year. Even at the top of the corporate heap, says Regine Stachelhaus, 55, a senior executive at Hewlett-Packard Germany, women are "still not completely accepted." Stachelhaus remembers a meeting with a supplier some years ago. As she began to outline the agenda, he protested that she should wait until the company lawyer arrived. When she explained that she was handling the meeting alone, the supplier grunted: "Well, where Hewlett-Packard is concerned, nothing surprises me anymore."

For a country that has long prided itself on the quality of its science and technology, Germany still wastes too much of its brainpower. Just 9% of top chairs in math and the natural sciences in German universities are filled by women. In France, 30.7% of university science and math professors are women. Of the science researchers in Germany's universities, only 14% are women, compared with 44% in Ireland. Of Germany's university science professors, around 6% are women, half the percentages in Italy and the U.K.

Time's interviewees had views on what might bring about a change of culture. Bierach, the author, emphasized the need for equal access to education: "Women in leading positions all come from families where education is gender blind. They all have had a fantastic education," she says. Hewlett-Packard's Stachelhaus advises women to look for jobs in companies and sectors where women are already well represented. Kunstmann suggests that women who want to make their way to the top should not "try to behave like a man. Dare to be different, to be a woman."

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© Teilnehmer des Projektes Allied Schools Graz zuletzt bearbeitet am: 10. Mai 2006