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Making Corporate Culture More Family-Friendly

July 10, 2003

Politics and industry have joined hands in Germany to make companies more family and women friendly as the familiar problems of an ageing work force and falling birth rate are revisited on World Population Day on Friday.

The German government wants companies to do more for female employees with children.Image: AP

It's no secret that Germany, the world's third largest economy, is facing a ticking demographic time bomb. With a rapidly graying population (by 2050 every third German is estimated to be 60 or older) and one of the lowest birth rates in Western Europe (just under 1.4), the country is in dire need of a serious trend reversal.

A new two-year initiative by German Minister for Women and Family Affairs Renate Schmidt and the Bertelsmann Foundation unveiled this week hopes to do just that. Called "Alliance for the Family," the aim is to promote a more family and women friendly corporate culture and impress upon companies that having flexible working hours and office day cares for employees with children works out to their advantage.

"A better balance between family and career is important for all: for families because they need time for another, but also for companies because they will soon have massive problems in their search for skilled workers and in their number of customers if the low birth and employment rate among women remains constant," Schmidt said. "Germany ranks 181 among 190 countries when it comes to the birth rate and has the lowest women's employment rate in the European Union."

Compared to other industrialized countries, Germany does indeed have a considerably low number of working mothers. Only 10 percent of managers in Germany are women with children; in the U.S. the number is closer to 40 percent.

Firms weigh costs of being family-friendly

Liz Mohn, head of the powerful Bertelsmann media dynasty and a member of the Board of Trustees of the eponymously named foundation also emphasized the importance of juggling kids and career. "It's not just an important building block to counter the demographic trend, but family-friendly working conditions is also a crucial advantage in global competition."

The new initiative follows the release of a study earlier this week by the Hertie Foundation, which found that 90 percent of companies surveyed feared the costs involved in being more family-friendly.

The establishment of a office day care is estimated to cost a firm up to €25,000 and a further €650 in monthly running costs. Just 70 companies out of a total three million nationwide were singled out for doing enough to warrant a "career and family" certificate handed out by the foundation to companies with exemplary family-friendly policies.

State needs to do more for child care infrastructure

Chancellor Schröder's Social Democrat and Green government has long made women-friendly policies a central plank of its agenda.

Government benefits range from offering tax breaks, a monthly per child bonus pay of €154, full-paid maternity leave for 14 weeks and child benefits of up to €307 per child per month for the first two years (dependant on income). However a common complaint has been that the government benefits aren't complemented by providing enough day care centers and full-day schools that would encourage mothers to go back to work.

A study by the Bertelsmann Foundation found that the German government guaranteed financial help for children, but did too little in providing childcare infrastructure. Thus the government spent a quarter of its budget earmarked for family and children in childcare early this year as opposed to industrialized nations such as Denmark, which poured more than half its budget into day care, kindergartens and schools.

A spokeswoman from the German Ministry for Families, Seniors, Women and Youth, however, told Deutsche Welle that priorities were changing. The government has now set aside €4 billion that it will hand out over the next four years to the federal states to build up full-day schools and a further €1.5 billion starting 2005 for providing child care for children under the age of three, she said.

Companies should pitch in too

But in addition to the government's role in helping women, Renate Schmidt now wants companies to play their part. The "Alliance for Family" foresees bringing together local business, charity and family organizations together in round table conferences and searching for ways to harmonize family and career.

Schmidt says the companies should have more flexible working hours, services that are close to families and when possible establish office day care and enable employees with children to work from home. The minister said special focus should be placed on part-time work and urged a "change in attitude" among personnel departments.

"We need a higher part-time work quota in skilled jobs too," she demanded. The minister said companies needed to consider part-time work even in the afternoons that wouldn't necessarily amount to half-day work. "Time is the magic word for successful family policies, money isn't so much a factor," she said.

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