Working Parents in Germany Struggle With Childcare, Too

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I always envied those lucky working stiffs over in Europe, with their luxurious pensions and endless holidays and unthinkably generous maternity leaves. It turns out it’s not so easy across the pond, either. Knowledge@Wharton, the excellent online magazine by the Wharton Business School, reports in an article today that though German employers do indeed offer admirable childcare policies, working parents can’t take advantage of them. Why? A few reasons:

• There’s very little paid childcare available.

• German society still frowns on women who stray from their traditional roles, which center on “kinder, k├╝che und kirche”–children, kitchen and church.

• German schools apparently let out at noon.

According to Wharton:

The lack of an extensive day-care infrastructure is partly due to the government itself, according to Katja Seim, a German native and professor of business and public policy at Wharton. “Until very recently, German laws were geared to enabling women to stay home with more children for extensive periods of time at the expense of having a widespread day-care system for young children. Statistics show that fertility is lowest among college graduates. The opportunity cost of being a working mother is high.”

To her credit, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who doesn’t have kids, has made access to childcare an issue. Of course, her hand is kind of forced: Germany has suffered a swooning birth rate since the 1960s. The government launched a program this year that offers financial incentives to encourage working women to bear children.

Interestingly, the biggest problem employers face isn’t retaining their child-bearing employees–it’s getting them back to the office. Because there’s so little childcare available, many parents are forced to take long, unpaid leaves to stay home and raise their kids–while holding on to their jobs in absentia.

Overall, corporations have a difficult time keeping mothers on their staffs–due in part, ironically, to generous government programs for parents. “In post-industrial societies such as Germany, we do see that some women and men freely choose to take time out for their kids, particularly if their financial situation allows it,” notes Hoegl. “This is further supported by long-standing laws on unpaid maternity leave and by guaranteeing the job of employees for quite some time after childbirth. Taken together, all of this makes it tougher for companies in Germany to keep highly productive female employees on their staff as they start to have families.”

Any European readers out there? Tell us what your experience is.