The EU Commission would like to make it easier for new mothers to return to the workplace by providing longer and better paid maternity leave. But Brussels' plans have met with criticism in Germany.
Some critics say the proposals focus on women
The EU Commission would like to ensure that women are better able to combine work and family life. To that end, self-employed women are to receive paid maternity leave for the first time.
Additionally, the commission's proposals would increase the minimum period of maternity leave from 14 weeks to 18 weeks and recommend paying women 100 percent of their salary beyond the current minimum of paying at least equivalent to sick pay.
Women would have more flexibility to decide when to take the non-compulsory portion of their leave, either before or after childbirth, and would no longer be obliged to take a specific portion of leave before childbirth, as is presently the case in many member states.
For most EU member countries, the proposals are more or less in keeping with the way governments already manage maternity leave. But in Germany, there was outrage when the commission unveiled its plans in early October.
Many women in Germany don't want to give up their jobs in order to raise children. Under German law, they're entitled to three years of Elternzeit, or parental leave, during which they can't be fired from their jobs.
But the reality is often different. Employers frequently offer women severance pay if they voluntarily quit instead of opting for leave, and many women who do return to their jobs after maternity leave say they feel that they're the victims of discrimination.
The reality in Germany is well known to Anne Seyferth of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.
"Compared to other European countries, Germany is not exactly among the leaders when it comes to family politics," she said. "If we were, then we wouldn't have such a low birth rate, such a low rate of working mothers, nor such a relatively high number of children who are growing up in poor families."
Reality of parental leave in Germany
Sociological studies have shown the best insurance against child poverty is a mother who can work and earn money. Studies have also proven that there is a correlation between the number of children, and women's employment status: The more mothers who receive adequate compensation for their work, the higher the birth rate. This is also the basis for the EU Commission's plan to lengthen the period of paid maternity leave. Ultimately, the goal is to increase economic growth, prosperity and competitiveness in the whole European Union.
Petra Schott, who works for the commission in the department for employment, social affairs and equal opportunity, said the changes would be a step in the right direction.
"Women would have more time to recover after giving birth," she said. "They'd have more time to get to know their child and adjust to life with a newborn."
She added that it could also make it easier for working women to find suitable childcare, which would make returning to work less stressful.
Fathers need encouragement to spend more time with their children, some experts say
In principle, Germany's new "Elternzeit" scheme is also supposed to be a step in the right direction. As in Sweden, the option to take parental leave is open to both mothers and fathers.
But in Germany, less than 1 percent of fathers (around 4,500 men) actually take advantage of the option to stay home with their babies for a year, said political scientist Peter Doege, who conducts research on Germans balancing family and work.
He said with the new maternity leave proposals, the EU Commission is showing that it is only thinking of women, as if they're the only ones for who struggle to balance the demands of a family and a career. He added that this doesn't reflect today's changing gender expectations.
Expectant fathers need to become much more involved in the process of both having and raising children, according to Doege.
"Numerous studies have shown that fathers are more active in child-rearing when they feel that the child is just as much theirs -- when they also experience pregnancy," he said. "Those fathers who, for example, attend birth preparation classes, prove to be much more actively involved once the child is born."
Longer maternity leave the solution?
The national association of German employers (BDA) is against lengthening maternity leave. Renate Hornung-Draus, head of International Social Policy at the BDA, instead calls for mothers and fathers to take equal advantage of parental leave.
"You need to combine it such that neither parent ends up losing touch with the working world, but socially and culturally, we're still far from that," she said.
Employers are instead increasingly campaigning for better daycare options for working parents.
"That would mean that parents don't have to make such a radical 'all or nothing' choice that is so harmful to job continuity and a true work-life balance," Hornung-Draus said.
Some say creating better daycare options is the way to go
Hornung-Draus has personally experienced both the German and Belgian childcare systems. In Germany, it is still assumed that mothers carry the primary care responsibility, whereas in Belgium, children are given adequate care and both parents are able to concentrate on their jobs.
But Maria Kathmann from the German Unions' Federaton (DGB), said it's employers who need to change their attitude the most.
"If you look at the situation in eastern Germany right now, only 57 percent of under-three-year-olds are in daycare," she said.
If you talk with works council representatives or employees, she added, time and again you hear that people have huge problems trying to combine work and family life.
Kathmann said hiring policies also need to be changed.
"It has a lot to do with the current employment culture of presence and showing your face, and with the expectation from employers to first select staff members who have nothing else going on in the background."