December 3, 2014 — At a recent Catalyst Europe roundtable in Dusseldorf, Isabelle Kürschner, PhD, Catalyst Consultant to the Germanic Region, led a lively discussion on flexible work arrangements. She says that the real challenge in Germany is for organizations to show mothers (and fathers) that they can be parents and have a rewarding work life. Below she shares her expertise, and her own experience as a working mom in Germany.
Among all my girlfriends, I’m the only one who has a child and works full time. Today in Germany it is still very unusual for mothers of children under three years of age to work more than just a few hours a week.
Maybe that is one of the reasons that at almost every event I cite Catalyst founder Felice Schwartz’s claim: “I want to bring to my country’s needs the unused capacities of educated women.” Because I do. But even with more German women having university degrees than German men do, and entering the workforce in higher numbers than ever before, it can still feel like a hopeless endeavor.
Last month a book was released with the title The Compatibility Lie, and it was met with lots of applause. It uses the argument, yet again, that women can’t have it all and that it is simply selfish to bring a child into the world and leave it in the hands of strangers. It's impossible, the book says, for mothers to juggle the responsibilities of work, childcare, and household, a complaint that I hear frequently from my “mummy” friends. And yet again it points out that “those power women like Sheryl Sandberg may put an unacceptable pressure on everyday women who simply don’t have the resources to afford professional help.” And as if that message isn’t bad enough, the media and my own friends agree with it.
Here’s the question I ask myself frequently: are German women afraid to step out of their comfort zone? While beyond our borders it has become more and more “normal” that women with a good education return to work after motherhood, this is still the exception in my country. But what needs to be done to change this? Certainly there are infrastructural challenges: insufficient childcare options for children under three years of age, too-short school hours for children ages three to six, and schools for older children that close at noon. Then there are the tax incentives for single-income families that are contradictory to all the efforts to engage women in the workforce.
So for companies in Germany, the challenge is not only to get women away from their sweet little babies, which as a mother I understand is sometimes hard enough. The real challenge is to show them the benefits and rewards of a fulfilling work life, which is more attractive than all the allowances the government has to offer.