It was about six years ago, after the birth of her second child, that Felicitas Sochor quietly began to worry about being called a Rabenmutter.

Ms. Sochor had long dreamed of starting a cafe. But even if she could balance the work commitment that would require with the needs of her two young children, that split time could be seen as the taboo of leaving her children to “fly off to work” as a Rabenmutter, or raven mother.

She settled for an administrative job at a youth center in order to care for her children in the afternoon, with her husband as “the real breadwinner.” But when the pandemic upended her life and shut down the schools, and her husband, working from home, felt it was natural she should take over the child care, she rebelled. “Why do I have to be responsible for everything?” she says. “I said, ‘This isn’t my corona!’”

The COVID-19 pandemic and the change it has brought to work habits has hit mothers particularly hard around the globe. But in Germany, it has revealed that a country that is at the vanguard of progressive policies on many fronts, including health care, business, and governance, remains remarkably conservative when it comes to its views on motherhood and women in the workplace.

“When it comes to gender equality and women in the work market [Germany] is miles away from the situation in France, northern Italy, not to mention Scandinavian countries,” says Barbara Vinken, a professor at the University of Munich and author of “The German Mother: The Long Shadow of a Myth.”

An old view of motherhood

The German pandemic response is rooted in “retraditionalization” schemes that prevailed in the postwar 1950s, the heyday of patriarchal Germany. Partly as a repudiation to both Nazi ideology, when women were expected to reproduce for the Führer, and socialistic East Germany, where mothers routinely left their children in state nurseries, West Germany re-embraced an insular vision of motherhood. In a Germany morally decimated by the Holocaust, the nuclear family emerged as the heart of its reconstruction.

While France in the decades after the war built an extensive network of day care and after-school centers, allowing French mothers to enter the labor force in droves, it was mostly men who fueled the “German economic miracle.” Under the 14-year Christian Democratic tenure of West Germany’s first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, mothers were seen as the sole guarantors of their offsprings’ happiness. Preschools were rare, and schools ended at midday. Schoolchildren coming to an empty home for lunch because their mothers were working were disparaged as Schlüsselkinder, or latchkey kids. Although the stigma no longer openly exists, many in Germany still implicitly frown upon mothers who work.

Real change came when, concerned about the economic impact of sinking birthrates, Dr. Ursula von der Leyen, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s first family minister and now head of the European Commission, took a battery of steps to encourage women to combine work and family. Dr. von der Leyen, a physician and mother of seven, multiplied child care options and focused on gender equality measures.

But her milestone came in 2007 when, defying the most conservative Bavarian wing of her party, she pushed through a 14-month shared Swedish-style parental leave, with two optional months reserved for the father. Tax money would now explicitly encourage mothers to go back to work.

Yet the pandemic has shown how fragile the evolution had been. “While we were slowly heading toward a fairer division of tasks, the slightest shock and everything collapses,” says Ute Klammer, the director of the Institute for Work, Skills and Training at the University of Duisburg-Essen, who wrote Germany’s first report on gender equality in 2011.

Mothers in the workplace

Today most women in Germany work “on the side,” often taking low-paid part-time work, or “mini-jobs,” precarious positions with no social coverage created in 2002 to jump-start the economy. Those “women’s jobs” may facilitate their return after having children, but dampen their career prospects.

Germany continues to foster an “asymmetrical division of labor” that consigns women to a path of dependence and poverty, Professor Klammer says. Thus the economic powerhouse Germany lags behind most advanced industrialized economies in terms of the gender pay gap, women in top positions, and gender equality, according to recent studies by the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin.

Attitudes toward gender roles, and the entrenched view that women should stay at home to care for their children, have failed to adapt to a changing society. Women who divorce can no longer count on the generous family allowances from their ex-spouses that, in the past, might have reduced the incentive for them to work. But while divorce rates are rising and women are increasingly expected to stand on their own feet, many are ill-prepared to reenter the workforce to provide for the family and start contributing to a pension after the birth of a child. The result? Poverty rates among older women in Germany keep increasing.

Married couples pay a joint tax rate that reinforces the patriarchal “one breadwinner” models where one partner – usually the wife – stays at home or works part time, in that generous tax breaks are given to the higher earner, usually the husband.

“We women have to fight all the time”

One early summer evening, a group of women gathered as part of a women’s initiative called FrauenWelten, or “Women’s Worlds.” It was, via Zoom, their way to cope with the ramifications of a crisis that has wreaked havoc on their careers and family plans.

“There is so much anger, so much disappointment,” said group moderator Lena Stenger, a banking executive turned entrepreneur with two children. She created FrauenWelten with Frankfurt mother Arnika Senft “to help women navigate through the road of career and motherhood” and help them “overcome the feeling of being torn inherent to being a mother that is universal but extreme in Germany.”

“We women in Germany have to fight all the time, to constantly justify our life choices, with others, your family, yourself,” says Ms. Stenger, an exception of sorts in a country where women hold only 2% of the top corporate jobs and mothers with top jobs are even rarer.

The government has stepped up efforts to change that. In July the Bundestag approved a new plan for fighting gender inequality that includes more boardroom quotas. And a push to abolish precarious “mini-jobs” is gaining momentum. But the real pushback – to change mentalities – is coming from women like Ms. Stenger.

Vicky Temperton is the only tenure-track professor with children in her department at Leuphana University of Lüneburg. Since the start of the pandemic, the number of young female professors coming to her for advice has been rising steadily, she says. And earlier this year, Dalia LaChance, the founder of online furniture company Westwing in Munich, launched #Stayonboard, a lobbying group aimed to help female board-level executives keep their jobs after taking maternity leaves.

For Ms. Stenger, her biggest barrier to reaching the top of the banking world was the deep cultural bias – and sexist attitudes – against talented women, she says. It wasn’t until she created her own company with her husband that she found peace with herself.

With FrauenWelten, she wants to help women overcome the hurdles she experienced. And she provides hands-on tips on how to become business angels and create startups, two fields she feels German women are grossly underrepresented in. “We need more women who create, who invest.”

“This is the culture I was born in,” Ms. Stenger says. “In Germany, it is deeply ingrained in society.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, we have removed our paywall for all pandemic-related stories.

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