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Being a mother as a professional risk?


Returning to work after a long break is often difficult. Older people and women in particular have problems with this. Is there a lack of appreciation for unpaid care work?

Despite numerous further training courses, self-employment alongside family time and over 100 applications, Lia Roth mainly receives rejections. Ten years ago she was the marketing manager of a well-known company. Then she became a mother. Now she has been searching in vain for a new professional perspective for almost three years.

The consultant at the employment agency advises Roth that she should start as a team assistant. After the long break, her studies and her career are invalidated for the job market. “That was like a slap in the face for me,” says Roth.

Parental leave as a turning point

A study by the Federal Employment Agency confirms: Older people generally have a harder time on the job market – even if they are qualified. Women are particularly affected, as a survey by the job portal stepstone shows. For them in particular, parental leave represents a turning point in their professional careers.

Almost 20 percent return to their old employer, but in a different position. A third of women immediately reorient themselves. Three out of four women work part-time after maternity leave. For comparison: 85 percent of fathers return to their old position, only 17 percent return part-time.

It is primarily women who do care work

The reason: The majority of responsibility for household chores, children or caring for relatives still lies with women. Until they have children, couples in Germany live an egalitarian life: they share household chores and both work on their careers. But as soon as the first child is born, the situation changes: almost 70 percent of mothers, but just four percent of fathers, say they do the majority of the care work themselves. This is shown by a new study by the Economic and Social Sciences Institute (WSI) of the Hans Böckler Foundation.

In 2022, women did around nine hours more unpaid work per week than men. The so-called “Gender Care Gap” has narrowed slightly over the past ten years; However, this has done little to change the classic breadwinner model. Mothers in particular take care of the household and children, while fathers are the main workers.

Corona was the big exception

The evaluation of the situation for families during the Corona crisis shows a slightly different picture. During the first lockdown in April 2020, gender relations seemed to change. The proportion of fathers who stated that they took on the majority of care work tripled to a “spectacular twelve percent,” says Bettina Kohlrausch, the scientific director of the WSI.

The reason: Home office and short-time work also enabled fathers to take more care of their children. In Kohlrausch's opinion, this shows that more flexible, shorter and perhaps more self-determined working hours are an essential prerequisite for greater equality.

Part-time has consequences

However, shorter working hours still mean: less further training and therefore fewer opportunities for advancement, which has long been known as the “part-time trap”. And again this has consequences, especially for women. The “Gender Hours Gap” shows: In 2023, they spent an average of 20 percent less time on paid work than men and therefore earned an average of 18 percent less. Accordingly, your pension will also be lower.

Both the poor career outlook after a long break and the low appreciation for care work unsettle women returning to work. This work is neither sufficiently rewarded nor seen as competence. This is also evident in power-m, a Munich funding program for career re-entry that emerged from a federal project. Almost all of the people who sought help there were women. What they all have in common is that they have little confidence in themselves and are insecure.

The first step is to build self-esteem before the CV and application can be optimized, says Ina Reggi, project manager at power-m. With a placement rate of almost 70 percent, this seems to be successful. To do this, Reggi had to do a lot of convincing with the companies. Family-friendliness shouldn't just be in the advertisement, but must also be lived in the company, says Reggi.

Other countries, such as Great Britain and the USA, are already much further along. They offer job seekers targeted return programs.

Courage to leave gaps, even in your CV

The sociologist Kohlrausch and project manager Reggi share the assessment that a rethink needs to take place. Unpaid care work needs to be upgraded. “Socially, we construct everything along the lines of an employment history without a gap,” says Reggi. “But actually that doesn't apply to almost anyone in society anymore.” There must be time for raising children, caring for relatives, but also for one's own health, friends or political engagement.

At the same time, a lot can be done to ensure that the care work does not fall largely on the shoulders of women, as it does now. These are actually classics, says Kohlrausch: the dissolution of the spouse split; parental leave, which fathers and mothers take equally; better childcare options.

Last but not least: Companies should become more flexible. Instead of complaining about the shortage of skilled workers, they should finally use the potential of well-educated women who, like Lia Roth, want to get started again after having children.

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