Wednesday, 28 May 2014

‘Rabenmutter’ – the undermining of women

In the same way that the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi did not herald the equality of women, let alone the rise to the top, in the UK or India the undoubted success of Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor and possibly the most successful European politician, is not an indicator of the success of German women in the workplace. I am now wondering if her nickname of “mutti” ie Mummy is affectionate or ever so slightly patronising.

I have just returned from a few days in Berlin. I never need an excuse to visit Berlin but the reason this time was to attend the Cornerstone Conference of the International Women’s Forum – I am on the board of the UK organisation and have been involved in our international collaborations so it was about time I joined in the fray.

The conference was a fascinating mixture of talks, debates and socialising with our German hosts and our international colleagues. A thread running through was how very difficult the position of women with children is in Germany.  It is perhaps notable that Mrs Merkel does not have children – being a rabenmutter is not an insult that can be hurled at her.  A rabenmutter – literally a ‘raven mother’ is the epithet used to denigrate mothers who work. The interpretation is that a raven mother is a loveless, heartless, cruel, unnatural, or uncaring mother; a bad mother who does not take good care of her children – and not because she is hanging around the pub, the tennis club, lunching with friends or shopping - but working.

Germany has a problem: the birth rate is declining rapidly, there is a brain drain of talent out of the country - the brain drain is particularly acute in information and communications technology and the worry is that where the labour goes the companies will follow. And yet, and yet, they are losing women from the workforce once they have children or women who wish to pursue careers are choosing not to have children or to limit the number of children they have to one. Only 14% of women with a child return to full-time work and only 6% with two children. I am connecting the dots, are you? 

We heard from a number of very senior women and with rare exceptions they made their mark in non-German companies first – academic careers at Harvard and MIT, jobs with Shell, BP, in the pharmaceutical industry – and so on. The men we heard from seemed to be more home-grown. The educational system is excellent with a powerful focus on vocational careers and the intake into universities is about 50:50. Educated women are excellent mothers and it is good for child and mother (er, and father?) to spend as much time together in the early years – then what?

There are inequalities in pay in the UK, very few women at senior and board level in major companies (improving slowly) but the situation is much worse in Germany: Germany may no longer be the country of the prewar - Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church) but this was disappointing. Berlin on the other hand never disappoints, neither do my women colleagues.

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