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Germany’s government has been headed by a woman, Chancellor Angela Merkel, for 14 years. Another German woman, Ursula von der Leyen, recently was chosen to lead the European Commission, the first woman to hold the job. But there is a gap when it comes to women in powerful positions in the German workplace.
German women say they are excluded from senior management roles in the private sector. And a recent study showed that even after major businesses agreed four years ago to a voluntary quota ensuring a minimum of 30% women would serve on management boards, there has been little progress.
Ask German women why they are lagging, and they spout one German word: Rabenmütter. The word is singularly German, a derogatory term for working mothers, and a slur — untrue, it turns out — for a bird. In English, the term is “raven mother.”
“A raven mother is a mother who does not care about her children, is a mother that cares [primarily] for the job — which is ambitious and just an unattractive woman,” explains Jutta Allmendinger, the president of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. She bemoans the persistent attitudes toward female ambition that are a barrier to full-time careers after a German woman gives birth.
Germany lags behind Europe’s other big economies when it comes to women in leadership roles in business, says Allmendinger. She points to the German tax system, based on a “one-breadwinner household.” There is a tax penalty for an equal second household income, and there are big deductions for women who stay home, she says.
“So, women in Germany started way later than other European countries to enter the labor market in big numbers,” Allmendinger says.
That slow start was also due to slow change in German laws, says Barbara John, the CEO of Der Paritätische, a private social welfare organization.
Before 1977, “It wasn’t allowed,” she says, for German women to work outside the home without their husbands’ permission. Legislative change that year provided gender equality in marriage and, at last, ended spousal permission for women to work.
Still, the “wage penalty” is largest for German mothers compared to those in four other European countries included in a recent study. After 10 years, the study found, a German mother earns 61% less than she did a year before giving birth, because many mothers opt to work part-time or quit working after their children are born. (A 2015 study of more than 19,000 German mothers found that 18% returned to work full-time at their previous employer after taking maternity leave, and 20% returned to work part-time. Thirteen percent switched to a new employer).
“It’s really unfair because it keeps women far from the job market,” says Annet Richter, a Berlin resident who grew up in East Germany, where women were expected to work after giving birth. Children went to state-run kindergartens. She only learned about raven mothers after East and West Germany reunified in 1990.
Gudrun Westerman, an accountant in Berlin, says she couldn’t worry about being name-called after her son was born. Her husband is an actor without a steady income.
“I was never thinking about someone calling me a raven mother because my husband had no job that would have allowed me to stay at home,” she says.
Another way to ignore the raven mother label: opting not to have children. Germany’s birthrate fell and remained low in recent decades, but has been rising again.
Some credit von der Leyen — the new European Commission head, who trained as a medical doctor and is the mother of seven children — with helping reverse the low birthrate trend. When she was appointed Germany’s minister of family affairs in 2005, she instituted new policies, including better childcare for younger children and parental leave for dads.
Despite individual successes, public opinion takes time to change, says Allmendinger. And many feel von der Leyen’s ability to have a successful career and a large family is in part because of privilege.
“How can you show off your kids, how can you even dare to do it,” says Allmendinger, repeating critics’ complaints, “because you have money and you can buy your nurses and childcare facilities, but we can’t. In Germany, you still can’t win.”
And neither can the raven, she says: “Look it up.”
Ravens are wonderful birds, she insists. They are clever — and they are fierce mothers, too.
Anna Noryskiewicz contributed to this story.