Globalist Perspective

America’s Mommy Wars: A Transatlantic Perspective

Are German women justified in admiring the progress on gender equity that American women have made in the workplace?

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer Credit: TechCrunch50-2008/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


  • The United States is one of the very few countries worldwide that provides no job protection for new mothers and zero legally mandated paid leave for parents.
  • In Germany, daycare is much more affordable. Prices can reach several hundred euros in big cities, but they are several times that amount in similar U.S. cities.
  • Even at leading multinationals headquartered in conservative Bavaria, young fathers — not just young mothers — take time off to raise their children.

In Germany and elsewhere on that side of the Atlantic, American women are generally admired as path breakers and as having a big leg up on reaching gender equality on the job.

While it is true that German women have a lot of catching up to do in the race to the boardroom (the country is considering, among other remedies, establishing quotas for women on corporate boards), the presence of a few high-profile executives — such as Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo! — clouds the fact that American women are only slightly ahead of their German sisters in reaching the top. And both are way behind some Scandinavian nations in this regard.

But as far as the work-life balance is concerned, on which the former high-ranking State Department official and Princeton dean Anne-Marie Slaughter opined recently in The Atlantic, Germany actually seems to have that part pretty well figured out. Germany generally offers generous monetary support and legal protections for young parents, although the support mechanisms are much stronger — and far more women-friendly — in neighboring France.

Unfortunately for her American readers, Slaughter’s article starts on the wrong premise and does not even address the systemic problems that would make her otherwise sensible demands to American society hard to fulfill.

Yes, it would be nice if employers would not use a baby break as a negative factor when deciding who is on track to be promoted. But a concern like that is almost trivial compared to the even bigger worries America’s women have. The United States is one of the very few countries worldwide that provides no job protection for new mothers and zero legally mandated paid leave for parents.

American society as a whole will not achieve this much-desired work-life balance without alleviating the economic stress that working mothers and families alike face — not just in the lower classes, but even among highly-educated, white-collar professionals.

Many of them are stuck between a rock and a hard place: On the one hand, society offers little support to parents (of both sexes) who want to take time off to raise children. On the other hand, the costs for childcare are prohibitive for those who do not want to or cannot afford to leave their jobs.

Meanwhile, even at top policymaking levels, the German debate tends to romanticize the American situation. Case in point: The German Labor Minister (and former Family Minister) Ursula von der Leyen, herself a mother of seven, a fighter for women quotas on company boards and sometimes mooted as a future Chancellor of Germany.

When she visited Washington in April, well before the current episode of the American Mommy Wars, she flattered her audience at a conference sponsored by the Bertelsmann Foundation by stating: “You Americans were always ahead of us in combining work and family.”

To prove her point in autobiographical terms, she indulged in memories of the acceptance of professional women and the wonderful child support that institutions such as Stanford University offer — and from which she benefited during the few years she spent there with her husband.

But most Americans do not have access to the wonderful facilities at Stanford. Just as in Germany, parents scramble to get their children a coveted place in a daycare facility, with one crucial difference: In Germany, daycare is much more affordable. Yes, prices can reach several hundred euros in big cities, but one has to reckon with several times that amount in similar U.S. cities.

Fighting for subsidized daycare and legally mandated maternity leave may be considered a long shot in the United States, a country suspicious of government handouts of any kind. But this is exactly where the Mommy Wars really ought to start.

The example of Germany is once again instructive. The country’s parent-friendly policies may not have reached their underlying demographic and economic goal — raising the low birth rate and increasing the skilled workforce by giving women the option to have children and a career. They have also not changed the conservative mentality, especially in the southern part of the country, where many still feel that a mother belongs at home.

But while much more needs to be done, the changes that have been implemented have increased society-wide acceptance for family time in many work environments. Even at leading multinationals headquartered in conservative Bavaria, such as at BMW, young fathers — not just young mothers — take time off to raise their children.

As far as mothers who take a prolonged baby break are concerned, there is still some stigma attached to it in some circles. But as even very large firms have revised their human resources policies, in light of more than a decade or two of hands-on experience with the multitasking talents of women, many women are finding it easier than ever to resume their careers when they return.

Getting any of these steps accomplished legislatively would end the many dilemmas faced today by most American women. But none of this would help solve one of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s main problems with work at the State Department: not having enough time with her family.

Her vacation time accumulated at a rate of a dismal four hours for every two weeks worked. That translates into 12 calendar days per year — and that in the supposedly luxuriously generous civil service. With dismal benefits policies such as that, for men and women alike, it is little wonder that family ties are so strained and parents and children so stressed out.

As the developed world has learned, having little vacation is definitely not the sign of a productive society. Not giving mothers special protections is not conducive to broader human, social and economic development either.

The “struggles” of the Anne-Marie Slaughters and Marissa Mayers aside, it seems as if women in the United States still have some very fundamental battles to fight before there can be any realistic talk of work-life balance.

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About Sabine Muscat

Sabine Muscat reports about U.S. politics, macroeconomic and social trends for several German media organizations.

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