In Germany, a tradition falls and women rise


Manuela Maier was branded a bad mother. A Rabenmutter, or raven mother, after the black bird that pushes chicks out of the nest. She was ostracised by other mothers, berated by neighbours and family, and screamed at in a local store.
Her crime? Signing up her nine-year-old son when the local primary school first offered lunch and afternoon classes last autumn — and returning to work.

“I was told: ‘Why do you have children if you can’t take care of them?’” said Manuela, 47. By comparison, having a first son out of wedlock 21 years ago raised few eyebrows in this traditional Bavarian town, she said.

Ten years into the 21st century, most schools in Germany still end at lunchtime, a tradition that dates back nearly 250 years. That has powerfully sustained the housewife/mother image of German lore and was long credited with producing well-bred, well-read burghers.

Modern Germany may be run by a woman — Chancellor Angela Merkel — but it seems no coincidence that she is childless.

Across the developed world, a combination of the effects of birth control, social change, political progress and economic necessity has produced a tipping point: numerically, women now match or overtake men in the work force and in education.
In the developing world, too, the striving of women and girls for schooling, small loans and status is part of another immense upheaval: the rise of nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

In both these worlds, women can remain trapped by tradition. Now, a social revolution — peaceful, but profound — is driving a search for new ways of combining family life and motherhood with a more powerful role for women.

Tradition

But in Germany, despite its vaunted modernity, a traditional perception of motherhood lingers. The half-day school system survived feudalism, the rise and demise of Hitler’s mother cult, the women’s movement of the 1970s and reunification with East Germany.

Now, in the face of economic necessity, it is crumbling: one of the lowest birthrates in the world, the spectre of labour shortages and slipping education standards have prompted a rethink. Since 2003, nearly a fifth of Germany’s 40,000 schools have phased in afternoon programmes, and more plan to follow suit.

“This is a taboo we just can’t afford anymore; the country needs women to be able to both work and have children,” said Ursula von der Leyen, the German labour minister. A mother of seven and doctor-turned-politician, she baffles housewives and childless career women alike, not to mention many men in her Christian Democratic Union.

The spread of all-day schooling in Germany, a trend she considers ‘irreversible,’ is a sign of the times, Ursula said. “The 21st century belongs to women.”

Women already form the majority of university graduates in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which groups 30 nations from Europe to the United States to Turkey and South Korea; this year, women will become the majority of the American work force.

Add to that an economic crisis that has hurt traditional male jobs in manufacturing harder than female ones in services — in Germany, only 10,000 of the 2,30,000 who have lost jobs in the slump were women — and the female factor emerges as stark.
Everywhere, women still earn less, are more likely to work part time and less likely to hold top jobs. But young female doctors, for instance, are rising in numbers, and women dominate middle management in major consumer companies. They could run the hospitals and corporations of tomorrow. Every fifth household is already sustained by female income.

Working women seek not just a paycheck, but also fulfilment of ambitions. “I love my son, and I love my work,” said Manuela Schwesig, 35, deputy leader of the opposition Social Democrats.

In 1763, Prussia was ahead of its time, the first country to make education compulsory for its lower classes. The half-day system evolved in a family economy that depended on child labour. By the time France and Britain set up all-day systems a century later, the German way had already grown deep roots.

Staunch defenders are not just socially conservative politicians or clerics. Germany’s middle classes long believed that they, not the state, should round out children’s general culture. No school, the thinking went, could improve on a mother.

Today, highly qualified women tend to want to work, even if that means forgoing children; by their mid-40s, one in three German women live in childless households, the highest proportion in Europe along with Austria. At the same time, more and more women need to work, either as single mothers or because their partner cannot support a family alone.

For four decades after World War II, Germany was divided into East and West, now rendering it a social laboratory to study how basics, like school hours, can help shape attitudes.

Fair deal

In the East, a Communist leadership losing male labour to the West set up free day care centres and all-day schools. Women drove cranes and studied physics.
Western wives, by contrast, until 1977 officially needed husbands’ permission to work. By then, their Eastern peers had a year of paid maternity leave and shorter work hours if they nursed.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, female employment in the East was near 90 per cent, in the West 55 per cent.

Today, 66 per cent of German women work. But for those with children under three, that figure plunges to 32 per cent. Only 14 per cent of women with one child resume full-time work and only six per cent of those with two. One result: a birthrate of 1.38 children per woman.

Siemens, the 163-year-old industrial symbol of Germany Inc, is courting women, and mothers. It has 400 places for employees’ children in day care centres near production sites and plans to double that figure by next year. In Germany, 21 per cent of Siemens’s staff is female; among new recruits, 34 per cent.

What remains hazy is how many women will make it to the top echelons, and how fast. In Germany, only 13 per cent of university professors are women. Siemens is the only one of the top 30 German companies with a woman on its eight-person management board. Only two per cent of those running Fortune 500 companies are women.

And, if women’s advancement to date has been accepted by men, might conflict loom as calls for next steps — boardroom quotas or mandatory paternity leave — grow louder?

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