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Work-Life Balance Gets Boost in Germany

Deanne Corbett, DW-WORLD.DEApril 4, 2005

In Germany, where kids are seen as career killers, over 40 percent of highly qualified women choose to remain childless. But a competition to find the nation's most family-friendly companies is hoping to change that.

Combining work and family -- a difficult balance in GermanyImage: Bilderbox

Beate Werhahn has her own personal wake-up service in two-year-old daughter, Charlotte. Every morning at 6 a.m., the human resources manager for the Berlin branch of audit, tax and advisory services firm KPMG starts her day with a bit of playtime, then breakfast, before dropping Charlotte at kindergarten.

At work, Werhahn has been given the flexibility to arrange her day as it suits her. Some days, she leaves the office as early as 3 p.m. to pick up her daughter. But she also has the security of knowing that if she has to work late, the kindergarten's business-friendly hours mean Charlotte is in good hands until 6:30 p.m.

Werhahn found the kindergarten through Familienservice -- an agency KPMG has on contract to help those employees with children find arrangements to balance their work and family commitments.

"For me, it was helpful because I only had two months to get myself organized between the time I was offered my job and starting work," Werhahn said. "Normally, to get a kindergarten place, you have to fill in an application nine months or a year in advance, so it was very helpful to have Familienservice acting as an agent for me."

Thanks to her company's support, Werhahn is successfully combining job and family. But not many highly-educated working women in Germany can say the same. Around 40 percent of female college graduates in this country forgo having children altogether -- just one aspect contributing to Germany's worrying demographic shift as the population both shrinks and ages.

Societal pressures

Bafög Hörsaal Universität Studenten
German studentsImage: AP

The education system is partly to blame, as by the time women have finished their college degrees and gathered a few years of work experience, they often only have a small window of five to eight years in which to decide whether to have kids.

But societal values are just as much a factor. Frequently, working women are reluctant to step off the career ladder, for fear of having to start at the bottom again should they decide to return to work. Those that do return are often plagued by guilt -- the result of a persistent notion in German culture that working mothers are bad mothers.

"We're the world leader when it comes to not having kids," said Gisela Erler, the head of Familienservice. "Lots of countries have low birth rates, but that so many people go without kids at all, and that so many of them are highly qualified -- that's something you only see here in Germany."

Erler sees Familienservice as a "gap filler" for companies which recognize the need to offer support to employees with children, but which, for a variety of reasons, may not offer internal solutions such as an in-house daycare service.

"There's a realization among companies that half their workforce is made up of younger women, especially in the banking sector, in consulting, and in law offices," Erler said. "Companies are losing out if women decide to leave their jobs in order to raise a family -- that's incredibly expensive, and makes no sense. That's why companies are starting to do something about it themselves."

Government incentive

Buchcover: Schmidt - SOS Familie
German Minister for Family Affairs Renate Schmidt on the cover of her book "SOS Family -- Without Children, We're Starting to Look Old"

To spur on the family-friendly company movement, the Ministry for Family Affairs has launched a competition to name the nation's top employers for parents. A total of 366 firms entered the competition, though that number has since been whittled down to 35 companies of various sizes, and from various sectors. The winners will be announced in May.

"I'm pleased about the high number of applicants and the wealth of ideas with which German companies hope to make themselves more family-friendly," said Renate Schmidt, minister for family affairs. "Every single company can play a part in making Germany a more family-friendly country, and in the meantime, industry has realized what an important factor this is for the future."

Beate Werhahn is optimistic that after what she calls a "value loss" in German society, the pendulum is starting to swing back towards more family values, even in the workplace. She freely admits that having her baby was the best move she ever made in her career, because it's made her a happier person.

The happiness factor is not to be underestimated, according to Gisela Erler of Familienservice.

"Experienced bosses realize that employees who lead balanced lives with families are in the end happier and more productive than the workaholic," she said.