Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

On Women and Work


Still loving work, so that’s a good thing. My kids are on summer break and I have imported my lovely mother from South Africa to be au pair. She is doing a stirling job: they get up around 9am, lurk in their pyjamas until lunch, eat and then head out at a leisurely pace to – depending on the weather – the library, the pool or the water playground on the banks of the Neckar. It is entirely stress-free.

It’s also stress-free for me. I waltz out of the door in the morning, knowing that all is well. If someone falls and hurts themselves (or like yesterday, get a thousand tiny splinters in their elbow), their grandmother will kiss them better and offer comfort. If someone is hungry, an appropriate snack will be found. If clothes are dirty, clean ones will be provided. If a new entertainment is required, it will be found.

But more than just providing an efficient baby-sitting service, their grandmother loves them. And what privilege it is for me to go to work knowing they are in the care of someone who loves them as much as I do.

This is the privilege women have been providing men for generations, and nowhere more than here in west Germany where an idealised form of motherhood has dominated the culture. Women stay home with their small children, punkt.

Getting back into the workplace in a meaningful way in Germany is hard. In an article in The New York Times, journalist Katrin Bennhold says that only about 14% of German mothers with one child resume full-time work, and only 6% of those with two.

Many things stop mothers going back to work fulltime: the lack of proper fulltime affordable childcare, school that close their doors at lunchtime, a tax system that subsidizes income inequality. Most of the women I know work, but it’s almost always part-time.

So if we can’t get women back into full time work, how do we get them into management?  Despite a “decade of earnest vows from the corporate sector” (including Deutsche Telekom’s very laudable voluntary goal of 30% female managers by 2015), Deutschland AG remains male-dominated: women make up 2% of corporate boards, all 30 DAX companies are run by men and there was only one woman on a supervisory board, but she recently “resigned”.

There is furious national debate about quotas. Politicians moot it, Deutschland AG pays lip services to equality but resists and the few women in high-profile positions swear that the only way to get there is merit.

Bennhold quotes German anthropologist Julia Allmendinger, author of several studies on women in the former East and West, who says that state intervention appears to be most effective in battling stereotypes. Women in east Germany – where the former Communist system established full time daycare and encouraged women the work – are more mobile, more likely to have babies and reach management positions than women in the west.

Allmendinger calls for strong legislative signals.

I do too. After all, it worked for Norway.

And now, I really must go to work.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

16 thoughts on “On Women and Work

  1. Oh, don’t get me started on this one. I work in publishing – a female dominated industry – where I have watched professional after professional leave because they have children and their employers stubbornly refuse flexibility around their return to work. It’s crazy! Talented, experienced professionals lost and the publisher just has to start training someone else up. Invest in your talent! Support parents! Why oh WHY is this so hard for businesses to get their heads around? I don’t have children myself but am in absolute awe of the hardworking parents who have families and return to work. It is NOT easy. My current employer is incredibly forward thinking and supportive of all their staff – working from home options, three day a week options. This is just sensible management. Their staff are happy, motivated and work incredibly hard. I am glad to hear you have such wonderful support!

  2. Everytime I cross the Rhein (or receive NIDO Magazin we have subscribed to) I’m always dumbfounded by the difference between France and Germany on this matter, for countries that are so close.
    Here (Paris) getting back to work after the birth is normal and expected (cost of living is too high not to), so no one is stigmatized or trip-guilted into that ideal of motherhood at home. Cheap childcare is possible for low income families, or richer people find solutions with private nannies + social benefits.
    The sad thing is that I have the feeling that Germany is not as child-friendly as one could expect, because given the dilemna a number of ambitious German women I know have chosen not to have children at all. Not too good for the future.
    That said, glass ceiling is very prevalent here too. I see both issues as separate imho. Quotas won’t be helping as long as perfection in motherhood / parenthood remains the cultural norm (French people are more used to fudge perhaps 😉 !)

  3. Women value relationships and family more than men. They have better ethics and higher principles. Capitalism offers reward for nothing but capital. Men are not conflicted by this (mostly). Women are. Women are also the real winners. Money is a poor measure of wealth.

  4. Thank you for this post.
    It is one of those things I cannot get used to after moving here (coming from a country of working mothers).

    Another thing is that responsibility for raising children lays here solely on women. I do not think that many German Omas would offer to take care of their grandchildren full time.

  5. I have to admit that I am not a fan of externally (Government) imposed quotas a la Norway where the rush was to fill quotas rather than to do it well. I prefer the Swedish approach where they have worked hard to create a level playing field for women with similar results but much better quality.

  6. My wife didn’t return to work full-time – she’s on about 75% – because it’s the best balance between work and family. Nothing wrong with that at all. I

  7. I am firmly of the opinion that a level playing field can only be established for women/mothers in the workplace by state intervention/legislation. How many women are made to feel overly beholden that they are “allowed” to return to work in a “part-time capacity…. there are enlightened employers but that organisational enlightenment is often “spoiled”. Have observed unfairness so many times, ironically in form of a kind of peer pressure from other women…

  8. Well put, Charlotte!

  9. And the interesting thing about Germany is that the Chancellor is a woman. In the US, she is always mentioned when we discuss the question of why the US hasn’t had a female president yet.
    This topic is close to me heart. I climbed the corporate ladder at American Express in their HQ in NY but found corporate life didn’t fulfill me. Contrary to what you describe in Germany, American companies love to support working families and have whole squads of “work-life balance” experts in their HR departments. However, I think Colin above got to the heart of it: even given the choice to work, many women realize that they don’t want to farm out the raising of their offspring to other people (grandmothers notably excepted). I think it’s one accomplishment we can’t bear to see another person claim.

  10. That’s interesting, Charlotte. I didn’t realize that about Germany–progressive and regressive in different ways I see.

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  12. As a working mother in Canada, I can offer some thoughts too. It’s incredibly difficult on both sides – for women who work, we never have enough time for anything. Period. For mothers who stay home, (which I did when I was a single mother, and worked in daycare from my home), you are cut off from ‘being in the world’, from feeling part of society in a meaningful way. I’ve been cut off in mid sentence and walked away from because I’ve said I worked in daycare (a field I no longer work in). It was quite shocking to discover that in today’s world, women’s work is still considered not worthy of discussion by men, and yet the ones who set the policies for, among other things, child care and child care options, are men. It explains in part why Canada still doesn’t have a country-wide standard daycare policy. We have a government in power who have expressed many times that the ideal child care should not be decided by the state, but should be provided for by the extended family. I consider that a neanderthal opinion, so you can tell how shocked I was at your post here about how Germany doesn’t have a working/workable childcare solution either and that it’s expected that women will do the child raising from home. In an ideal world, I would love to be at home with and for my children. Period. But not because a man decided that was the best place for me. In my ideal world, I get paid a salary equal to what I earn ‘in the real world’ now, to stay at home and raise my children.

  13. It’s about choice, and it should always be about choice. It’s also about NO GUILT. I am MD of a communications agency in SA. It’s a very demanding and stressful position. I have two fantastic kids. I drop balls all the time. I asked Joe at breakfast this morning (after I’d forgotton to withdraw cash for something at school) whether he minded when I forget things. He looked at me perplexed. Of course not he said. Sometimes they give me a hard time but overall are proud of me and what I have achieved. My mum didn’t work. She was at my beck and call, and I guarantee you I haven’t turned out any better than kids whose mums’ worked. In fact, mine may turn out to be a little more resilient than me.

  14. I couldn’t agree more – supermum’s just taken voluntary redundancy after being basically sidelined and ignored (as a part-timer in the creative industries who couldn’t work twelve hour days and show up in trendy bars nightly) until she took the hint. It’s a bit of an adjustment for us – in my own work place I’ve always aggressively promoted family friendly policies and now I feel like I’m not entirely walking it like I talk it. She on the other hand, is loving being at home with little elf and reconsidering her priorities. Still…

    Lovely you have your mum with you, though! Your children must really love it.

  15. Aargh! I used “Lovely” and ‘love’ in the same line. Could you you delete the ‘lovely’ and replace with ‘marvellous’ or something?

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