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Germany

It's Not a Man's World

Despite the German government's efforts to make paternity leave an attractive option, men are working as much as ever. So what's stopping them opting for stay-at-home fatherhood?

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Why isn't this is a more common sight?

Women in Germany have never been better educated. But when they become mothers, they tend to take a break from work or even step off the career ladder entirely, defeated by the lack of kindergarten places and whole-day schooling.

But what about fathers? They attend the pre-natal classes and even the birth, they change diapers and they don't mind taking their toddler to the playground at the weekend. But what they're not doing is working less.

Stefan Barthmann, a management consultant with a bank, is a busy man, juggling appointments and meetings -- and the demands of his three-year daughter.

"My partner and I didn't want to do parenting the traditional way," he said. "We wanted to share the responsibility. Neither of us wanted to leave our job and we both wanted a close relationship to our daughter."

It sounds easy enough. But in fact, Stefan Barthmann is something of an exception.

The work-life balance

Eltern

According to German law, both parents are entitled to up to three years of parental leave. A reform introduced in 2001 also allows employees to reduce their hours if they have a family.

So Stefan down-sized to a part-time position, and now works 36 percent less than he did before. He and his wife work similar hours, both balancing child-care and professional responsibilities.

Gerhard Schröder's red-green coalition government has made gender equality the cornerstone of family policy. Whether both parents decide to stay at home, one stays at home while the other works or they both elect to work part-time, their job is legally secure.

A win-win situation

So why do so few fathers let work take a back-seat? According to the Ministry for Family Affairs, only 5 percent of them take paternity leave. Many of Germany's biggest companies have adopted family-friendly policies, providing in-house child-care, part-time positions and even flexi-time. The Commerzbank in Frankfurt, where Stefan works, has realized it has its advantages.

"It's part of our strategy," said the bank's head of personnel, Andreas de Maizière. "The plus-point is that our staff miss fewer days and they're generally happier. According to our calculations, it's worth it."

Even so, men aren't taking the bait. Management can't figure it out. Recently, the bank commissioned a study designed to find out what men actually want.

Previous research has repeatedly shown that men do indeed want to spend more time with their families. Up to 70 percent would like to cut back their working hours. But they don't. Kids or not, men work an average of 40-hours a week.

Who carries the can?

Wellness am Arbeitsplatz

Offering them flex-time or even working from home is all very well, but actually implementing these options is harder than most think.

"Experience shows that despite corporate efforts to be family-friendly, the daily rigors of company life often get in the way," said Heidrun Czock from Prognos, an economic research business. "To be fair, it's middle-management that tends to bear the brunt of the problem."

In other words, it's people such as Stefan Barthmann's boss who get saddled with scheduling problems. Moreover, middle-management tends to be 90 percent male-dominated. Few of them are going to be personally familiar with the challenges of combining family and career. After all, fathers who forfeit fast-track careers in favor of their families don't tend to win the rat race -- as Stefan Barthmann found out first-hand.

"I used to be the sort of man who was definitely on his way up," he explained. "But when I went part-time I was very hurt whenever I was passed over for promotions."

Hypocrisy

A recent study by the Verdi trade union also indicated that part-time fathers often encounter problems at work, either with their bosses or their colleagues.

Unfortunately, the situation's not likely to improve. Officially, Germany's captains of industry might take every opportunity to extol the benefits of family-friendly corporate policy, but they're equally enthusiastic about extending the working week.

With Germany struggling with an ongoing economic crisis, 5 million unemployed and the specter of job cuts looming permanently on the horizon, the issue of balancing kids and career seems less pressing.

Male solidarity

Mann flüstert einer Frau etwas ins Ohr

Clearly, women are no better off. Antagonizing colleagues, floundering at the bottom of the career ladder and missing opportunities are problems working mothers have all experienced.

But many companies have realized the problem may have very different roots. It's all a question of solidarity. Fathers worry that while it's socially acceptable for women to stay home with the kids, a man doing the same completely undermines traditionally male behavior. If he does it, why shouldn't all men?

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