Opinion: In Germany, progressive policies don′t always match attitudes | Opinion | DW | 30.08.2018
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Opinion

Opinion: In Germany, progressive policies don't always match attitudes

This week a German politician turned up to work with her 6-week-old baby. The state parliament president's reaction shows that the country still has a long way to go in pursuit of gender equality.

"If you want kids," I tell my friends abroad, "come to Germany! A year's paid parental leave. A legal entitlement to day care. And the playgrounds are excellent."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," they say rolling their eyes. "And you have a long-standing, female head of government who doesn't tweet. It's a great country. We get it."

It's easy to sound smug when describing Germany's family-friendly policies to those in faraway climes. In Ireland, where I'm from, the constitution still references a woman's "duties in the home" and the cost of child care is so high that it's often not financially viable for both parents to work.

But before we get too carried away by the Teutonic ideal, where women sail effortlessly from motherhood to the highest rungs of corporate and political ladders, let's allow ourselves to be diverted, briefly, by the facts.

A different reality

Chancellor Angela Merkel does not reflect the reality of women and leadership in Germany. In fact, the country ranks poorly in international measurements of female representation on corporate boards. And last year, thanks in part to the arrival of the far-right and male-dominated Alternative for Germany party, the proportion of women in the national parliament dropped to a 19-year low.

Kate Ferguson (privat)

DW's Kate Ferguson

"How can this be?" we ask ourselves. How can a country with such progressive policies still be so far away from the matriarchy it appears to be destined for?

To find out, let's conduct a thought experiment. Imagine you are a female politician in the eastern state of Thuringia. The summer break has just ended and the state parliament has resumed. You head off to work carrying your six-week-old baby in a sling.

Does state Parliament President Christian Carius:

a)  Gush over your baby and offer you his sincerest congratulations for the feat that is motherhood

b)  Order you to leave immediately, claiming that the chamber is no place for a child

c)  Offer to babysit so you can enjoy a night out in Erfurt?

You guessed it. Or maybe you didn't. The advantage to this thought experiment is that you can compare your answer to actual, real-life events.

No place for babies? 

When Green Party politician Madeleine Henfling arrived at work, Christian Carius, father of one and member of Merkel's Conservative CDU party, did in fact congratulate her on the birth of her baby. Then he told her to leave.

The chamber was no place for babies, he said, adding that the bright lights and noise posed a risk to the youngster.

Henfling's colleagues from the Greens and the Left Party came to her defense, with one politician accusing Carius of treating her like a second-class member of parliament.

But the man was not for budging, and the Council of Elders, a panel that manages internal parliamentary affairs, had to be called. It, too, appeared concerned about the impact bright lights could have on a young life, and chose to uphold Carius' decision.

Unsurprisingly, the whole affair sparked a lively debate on social media. Germany's former family minister, Kristina Schröder, also from the CDU, weighed in to defend Henfling, claiming that the case wasn't about the cost of childcare but the fact that newborn babies could often only be consoled by their parents.

In the end, the Thuringia Parliament came to an arrangement that seems to be to everyone's disadvantage. Over the next three days, during which Henfling will be unable to vote, a conservative member of parliament — incidentally a woman — will abstain in the interest of maintaining balance. In other words, the voices of two women will be silenced.

The reality of parenthood and work

But wait, I hear you say: Why did Madeleine Henfling come to work in the first place? Shouldn't she have been at home availing of Germany's generous parental leave?

Read more: Are family policy reforms to thank for Germany's rising birth rates?

Good question. Well for one, she couldn't, because members of parliament aren't entitled to parental leave — a pretty staggering fact that suggests Germany's family-friendly policies are not a priority in the very arena in which they are forged.

But even if Henfling could have taken a year of paid leave, she might still have opted to show up for work. After all, it's there that she has the power to change things.

Whether or not she did it to prove a point, her experience reflects what happens to many women when they present their bosses with the messy reality of uniting parenthood with their jobs. Progressive policies and enlightened attitudes don't always go hand in hand.

Babies in slings are complicated things. They cry and spit and suck and puke. And for that very reason, they belong in public as well as private life, reminding us of all the promise the future holds.

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