Germany Frets About Women in Shrinking Work Force Europe is facing increasing pressure on its social services because of a shrinking work force. Germany is examining ways to encourage mothers to return to the work force after they have children. Current family-friendly laws often have the unintended effect of limiting a mother's career potential.

Germany Frets About Women in Shrinking Work Force

Germany Frets About Women in Shrinking Work Force

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Europe is facing increasing pressure on its social services because of a shrinking work force. Germany is examining ways to encourage mothers to return to the work force after they have children. Current family-friendly laws often have the unintended effect of limiting a mother's career potential.


On Wednesday mornings, we focus on the workplace, and today we'll learn about a workplace in Europe. Women in German are often forced to choose between work and family, and many blame the country's social and tax systems. Critics say that until women get the services and support they need, the birthrate will continue to drop.

Like many European countries, Germany is worried about a declining population. As people get older and retire, the tax base that is providing the income for that retirement is shrinking. Germany has had one of the lowest birthrates in Europe for decades, as NPR's Rachel Martin reports from Berlin.

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

Katarina Peters(ph) used to be an international lawyer, helping craft environmental policy around the world. Now, this 46-year-old with two master's degrees and a house decorated with maps, is a full-time mom.

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MARTIN: And the highlight of her day is picking up her five-year-old daughter, Klara(ph), from kindergarten.

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Ms. KLARA PETERS (Daughter of Katarina Peters): Hello.

MARTIN: Peters is a Swedish national who moved to Berlin with her German husband five years ago. And while she didn't expect to just waltz back into her career after taking a couple years off to take care of her baby, she was shocked by how difficult it's been to find work in Germany.

Ms. KATARINA PETERS: I thought, when I first came here, oh, it's so similar. It's so easy to move here. And northern Germany and Sweden, there is so much similarity, and no problem at all. And then, when you want to get back in the labor market, and you are all of a sudden confronted with these very different attitudes.

MARTIN: Peters says half the mothers she knows work outside the home, but only in part-time jobs. Working more than that is virtually impossible because of a lack of daycare and kindergartens, and a tax system that favors households with stay-at-home moms.

But Peters says there's also a social bias against working mothers, sometimes called (speaks foreign language), or bad mothers. It's a stigma she says is built into the paternalistic social system.

Ms. PETERS: It's taken for granted that the mother takes care, or takes the major part of the responsibility for the family, even if she's also a well- educated person and a person with responsible job - and that the man can simply go on with his career and his work as always.

MARTIN: That's been hard for Peters to deal with. In Sweden, families with two working parents, sharing the child rearing has long been the norm. Sweden also has one of the highest birth rates in Europe, while Germany's has been languishing at about 1.3 children per woman since the 1970s.

If that continues, Germany's population could decrease by ten million by the year 2050. Experts say Sweden has figured out what Germany has not, that the best way to encourage a healthy birth rate is to make sure women don't have to choose between work and family.

Mr. STEPHAN GRUENERT(ph) (Berlin Institute for Population and Development): The question today is not if women will work. The question is if they will have children.

MARTIN: Stephan Gruenert is with the Berlin Institute for Population and Development.

Mr. GRUENERT: For a long time, politicians said that the high participation of women in the labor market is responsible for the low birth rate, because when women go into the labor market, they don't have children anymore.

But interestingly, when you look at other western European countries, the fertility rate is higher in countries with a higher labor market participation of women.

MARTIN: Since the 1950s, Germany has tried to boost the birthrate by paying parents a small monthly stipend for each child. But that hasn't worked. So Ursula von der Leyen, Germany's new Family Minister - herself a mother of seven - has proposed several new measures to encourage women to work and raise families, including more funding for childcare facilities and introducing paternity leave.

Ms. URSULA VON DER LEYEN (Family Minister, Germany): (Through translator) It's a modern and complex working world, and in order to create space for children in the society, we have to make sure mothers and fathers share equal responsibility.

MARTIN: But some critics say the reforms have to be more far-reaching. Even if women have the childcare they need to return to work, often they can't find jobs that suit their qualifications.

Betina Schlösser is the head of BPW, a German businesswoman's association.

Ms. BETINA SCHLÖSSER (Director of BPW): (Through translator) There needs to be a more open debate and a public message that says companies will be more profitable and sustainable if they employ women at top levels. It's good for business. It's good for society. And it's good for women.

MARTIN: According to the European Commission, women only hold 1 percent of the leadership positions in Germany's top companies. Schlösser says the government will have to do much more to convince German women that while managing a career and a family will always be difficult, it doesn't have to be impossible.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Berlin.

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