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In Germany, Working Mothers Say They Face Job Discrimination


Now we have an update on women's equality. Women say they are still excluded from many positions of power, even in a country that is governed by a woman. The country is Germany, where the chancellor is Angela Merkel. And our correspondent for this story is NPR's Deborah Amos.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: It is highly derogatory - an insult that describes working mothers, and a slur - untrue, it turns out - for a certain bird. Ready? Here it is. Raven mother. It sounds worse in German - rabenmutter.

JUTTA ALLMENDINGER: A raven mother is a mother who does not care about her children.

AMOS: Jutta Allmendinger is the president of the Berlin Social Science Research Center. She says the term raven mother has a long history, from when Germans connected women with hearth and home, not the workplace.

ALLMENDINGER: A raven mother is a mother who is interested primarily in the job and just an unattractive woman.

AMOS: So it's still a cultural thing, this raven mother.

ALLMENDINGER: Of course. I mean, very much so. Even a man, you know, would say of course it is.

AMOS: Germany lags behind Europe's other big economies when it comes to women in business leadership roles, she says.

ALLMENDINGER: So women in Germany started way later than other European countries to enter the labor market in big numbers.

AMOS: And that has to do with the history of German laws.

BARBARA JOHN: My name is Barbara John. I'm the CEO of a big Berlin welfare organization that is called Paritat.

AMOS: She says it was only in 1977 that legislative change gave women gender equality in marriage, and it last addressed a fundamental question that kept women from taking jobs outside of the home.

JOHN: Women were allowed to work without the permission of their husband.

AMOS: Women on the streets of Berlin have their own stories. Annet Richter says when she grew up in East Germany, women were expected to work. The kids went to state-run kindergartens. She only learned about raven mothers when East and West Germany became one.

ANNET RICHTER: It's really unfair because it keeps the women far from the job market.

AMOS: Gudren Westerman says she couldn't worry about name-calling after her son was born. She went right back to work.

GUDREN WESTERMAN: I was never thinking about someone calling me a raven mother because my husband had no job that would have allowed me to stay at home.

AMOS: And here's another thing about choice - in Germany, working women often chose not to have kids, which contributed to a shrinking population. It took a supermom to turn it around. Enter Ursula von der Leyen, a medical doctor with seven children. She became family minister in 2005. Her new policies, including better childcare for younger children and parental leave for dads, helped to reverse the decline.

Later, von der Leyen became Germany's first female defense minister. Now, she's the next president of the European Commission - the first woman to hold that job. But public opinion takes time to change, says the sociologist Jutta Allmendinger. Nobody called von der Leyen a raven mother, but they found other ways to complain.

ALLMENDINGER: How can you show off your kids, you know? How can you even dare to do it? Because you have money, you can buy, you know, your nurses and childcare facilities, but we can't. You can't win. In Germany, you still can't win.

AMOS: And neither can the raven, she says. Go look it up. Ravens are a wonderful bird, she says - smart, and they're good mothers, too. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 21, 2019 at 11:00 PM CDT
In a previous version of this report, we referred to Ursula von der Leyen as the likely next president of the European Council. She is actually going to be president of the European Commission.
Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.