Back-to-work mothers call for better work–life balance

In 2008, new findings on the situation of mothers returning to work reveal that almost half of all female employees work shorter hours, in low-paid ‘mini-jobs’ or as freelancers. Their careers are disrupted more often than those of men, mostly due to childcare leave. However, women’s views differ on the obstacles to returning to work. While in some cases traditional ideas and values influence views on parenthood, many women call for concrete measures to improve work–life balance.

About the study

The Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (Bundesministerium für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend, BMFSFJ) commissioned a study to evaluate the current situation of mothers re-entering the labour market. The study, Returning to work after starting a family (in German, 146Kb PDF), combined different research strategies. First, qualitative data was derived from 40 single interviews and 20 group sessions with eight to 10 participants lasting for three hours. Secondly, a survey comprising 3,000 interviews provided quantitative data. Subsequently, these findings were compared and matched with another survey entitled Typology of desires 2007–2008 (in German).

The analysis indicates that, although total female employment has risen sharply in recent years, women’s careers are still affected by parenthood. For example, fewer mothers with children under 18 years of age work full time in comparison with women with no children (16% and 46% respectively). However, more fathers with children aged under 18 years work full time than men without children (90% and 75% respectively). This comparison highlights that traditional patterns of parenthood persist in Germany where the mother stays at home and the father assumes the role of breadwinner.

The final report nonetheless denotes that women with different social backgrounds hold varying views on how to reconcile family responsibilities and working life. It also sheds light on the reasons for the lower employment rates among women after giving birth.

Employment characteristics among women

Women who participated in the survey were grouped according to qualitative criteria reflecting their position in society as well as their beliefs. As shown in the table below, the groups of women referred to in the survey as ‘conservatives’ and ‘traditionalists’ have the lowest employment rates for full-time work (defined as over 34 hours a week) at 6% and 12%, respectively. Women in these clusters are characterised by traditional family values and role models for parenthood. On average, they are already aged between 63 and 70 years, so that returning to a job after childbirth is no longer an issue.

Employment characteristics of women aged 14–64 years*
  No. of women Age Employed Weekly working hours Mini job** Un-employed Training Not working
Over 34 20 to 34 Fewer than 20
  ’000s Years %
Conservatives 945 63 47 6 30 3 8 - 9 44
Traditionalists 1,393 70 40 12 21 3 6 3 - 57
GDR-Nostalgic 1,163 55 60 37 16 1 6 31 - 9
Established 2,339 46 68 34 27 5 2 - 4 28
Postmaterialists 2,860 44 73 27 36 4 6 3 2 22
Bourgeois centre 4,235 45 58 32 18 4 4 8 11 23
Modern performers 3,393 30 55 44 9 1 1 1 35 10
Experimentalists 1,979 34 66 46 14 5 1 10 15 9
Consumption-materialists 2,512 46 57 20 26 2 9 14 4 25
Hedonists 2,409 38 61 42 13 1 5 6 8 25

Notes: *Excluding retirees. Please note: Table includes rounding differences.

**’Mini-jobs are low-wage jobs paying €400 or less a month. Employees holding such jobs do not have to make contributions to the statutory unemployment, health or pension insurance schemes out of their earnings. However, employers pay a fixed percentage of 30% of the wage to cover social security contributions.

Source: Returning to work after starting a family.

Attitudes and obstacles to returning to work

Two examples from the study are outlined below to contrast the attitudes of women in different income groups towards returning to work, and the problems which they face in doing so.

Modern performers

‘Modern performers’ usually belong to the upper middle class or upper class groups in society. With an average age of 30 years, they represent the youngest group of women in the study. Some 46% of women in this group work full time, which is the highest proportion in any of the groups under examination.

For these generally well-qualified women, an ideal lifestyle includes having a fulfilling job and professional success. Therefore, a woman in this group who decides to become a parent is therefore often fully aware of the risks of taking a career break. In their view, mothers face greater difficulties reaching an executive position in a company than fathers. These women are willing to meet companies’ needs for flexible and qualified executives. However, they often face many obstacles when returning to work as mothers.

Although modern performers criticise companies for their reluctance to support parents, they emphasise even more the limited childcare services available for working parents. With afternoons and evenings excluded, the opening hours of childcare facilities do not match the working hours of modern performers, yet their partners are often fully engaged in their own careers. Finally, modern performers also criticise the social norms that continue to label working mothers as bad mothers, thereby undermining their career ambitions.

However, modern performers plan their career breaks well in advance. By remaining in close contact with their employer during parental leave, they try to keep up to date with the latest developments in their jobs and at their workplaces. Some women even decide to work as freelancers during maternity leave. After their re-entry to the labour market, mothers invest a considerable amount of time into organising the supervision of their children by nannies, or in kindergartens or nurseries. They make such efforts to ensure the desired flexibility in their jobs. If returning to their previous workplace is not a viable option under the new circumstances, these mothers tend to look for alternative jobs.


In contrast to the modern performers, women in the ‘consumption-materialist’ group belong to the lower middle class or lower class groups in society. While living in the lower stratum of society, members of this group try to keep up with middle class standards, such as investing their income in electronic devices, cars and holidays.

Although this group, with an average age of 46 years, could still be active in the labour market, only 20% of women in this group work full time. This is a much lower proportion of women than in all of the other groups, with the exception of the oldest ‘conservative’ and ‘traditionalist’ groups. Most of the women in this group live in partnerships where traditional role ideas allocate both household chores and the upbringing of the children to them. The decision to return to work is usually driven by a financial need, when a second income is necessary to support the family.

After their maternity leave, however, these women usually face a different set of problems than women in the modern performers group. Women in the consumption-materialist group usually do not have academic degrees or similar qualifications – this lack of education is seldom compensated for by continuous training measures. With their partners rarely taking over household responsibilities or family obligations, such as childminding, they are often not in a position to work flexible hours. As a result, these mothers consider themselves lucky to find a job at all and those who have succeeded in finding a job attach great importance to keeping it. The job is often the only source of self-recognition and self-esteem for these women outside their homes. This group of women thus also calls for childcare facilities to be expanded.

Contrasting views on childcare provisions

Modern performers perceive social norms that hold the woman exclusively responsible for rearing children as out-dated and criticise the lack of appropriate childcare services. They call for kindergartens and nurseries to be expanded to allow both parents to pursue a career. Consumption-materialists take a more practical view. Affordable childcare services are a prerequisite for seeking employment, which is usually necessary in a financially strained household.


On 24 April 2009, the Federal Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, Ursula von der Leyen, proposed further legislation to support parents (in German). The proposal includes a change in the already existing types of parental allowance (Elterngeld, DE0703019Q) such that young parents who reduce their full-time hours to 60% only lose half a month’s entitlement to the payments instead of the current full month. The minister emphasised that, in times of economic crisis, it is even more difficult for young parents to decide between the desire to maintain a secure job and the wish to take time off to spend with their children. This new option would support both mothers and fathers and remove the need for them to quit work fully during their parental leave. Moreover, companies would be able to lower their costs while retaining their qualified staff.


SINUS-Insitut, Beruflicher Wiedereinstieg nach der Familiengründung [Returning to work after starting a family], Report on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, Berlin, 2008.

Sandra Vogel, Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW Köln)




Useful? Interesting? Tell us what you think. Hide comments

Eurofound welcomes feedback and updates on this regulation

Add new comment