In Germany, the Male Breadwinner is Still King

Study finds that mothers are increasingly staying in part-time jobs instead of returning to full-time work
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For many German mothers, a full-time job is becoming a thing of the past.

That's the evidence from a study that takes in the span of the country's recent history, and reveals the split in family policies between the former Communist east and West Germany.

In the former, a tradition of full-time working mothers has been eroded to conform with dominant practices in the West. And women everywhere now are increasingly staying in part-time employment after childbirth, and not as a stepping-stone to later full-time jobs, according to the recent paper published in Feminist Economics by Nadiya Kelle, Julia Simonson, and Laura Romeu Gordo.

The country’s reunification in 1990 ushered in a period of convergence under which the former East Germany received the West's policies wholesale -- including those on taxes, transfers, and family. New incentives were introduced that meant East German women could drop out of the labor force more easily after childbirth, and reforms awarded benefits to families that had one parent working only a limited number of hours per week.

For West German women, the flexibility of part-time jobs is what enabled many of them to work in the first place. But in East Germany, the shift follows a culture of strong female involvement in the workforce that the former socialist government considered crucial for women’s emancipation. The problem with spending prolonged periods in part-time positions, the authors explain, is that they are often concentrated in low-paid sectors that offer only muted pension contributions, wage growth or prospects of career-advancement training.

And while childcare is increasingly available for working mothers, it isn't usually enough to cover a full working day. Many kindergartens and schools close in the early afternoon. 

“This one-and-a-half model is staying and becoming even stronger,” Romeu Gordo said in a phone interview. Balancing the division of working hours within the same household “would be good for women and for men -- it would be good for the economy.”

Germany actually has Europe’s lowest share of families in which both parents work full-time, after the Netherlands. Some 80 percent of part-time jobs in Germany are held by women, according to the Federal Labor Agency. 

One reason may be cultural norms -- an area in which East and West Germany are still quite distinct. The authors cite one study showing that in 2000 about 55 percent of the population in the West felt that the mother of a young child should not be employed, compared to 36 percent in the East.

Romeu Gordo says offering incentives similar to those in Sweden, where both parents are encouraged to proportionally reduce their hours, may not only change perceptions but ultimately also help companies to attract talent -- “especially in Germany where the labor market is booming and they have to fight for good workers.”

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