Factors influencing women’s decision to return to work

In December 2011, the Institute for Employment Research published new findings on female career paths in Germany. Since career breaks have a decisive influence on the gender pay gap and other factors, the report’s authors set out to analyse the differences between women returning to work and those who take up no employment. Improved possibilities to combine family and working life are cited as the most important precondition for the successful return of women to the workforce.


At the end of 2011, the Institute for Employment Research (IAB) released its latest findings on the female employment situation in Germany (in German, 452Kb PDF). As earlier research has shown, career breaks play a major role in widening the gender pay gap. They can also have a negative effect on the participation rate of women in further training, worsen their prospects for promotion and reduce their pension entitlements.

The IAB researchers sought to develop recommendations for better integration of women into the labour market. Their study compared the following two groups of women:

  • female returners;
  • those who stay at home, for example, due to family obligations such as taking care of the children or sick relatives.

Study design

Data from the Federal Employment Agency (BA) and the Federal Statistical Office (destatis) were used for the analysis.

BA offers measures to support returners who have taken a break from employment, vocational training or unemployment due to family obligations. An average of around 163,000 female returners were registered with BA in 2008.

The second group represents the so-called ‘hidden reserve’ defined as:

  • those who wanted to work, were currently looking for work, but were not available within the next two weeks;
  • those who wanted to work, but were not actively looking for work, though available within the next two weeks,
  • those who did not want to work, were currently not looking for work, but were available within the next two weeks.

The micro census data for 2008 collected by destatis indicates that 434,000 people belonged to the hidden reserve as defined above, and 68.2% of them were women (296,000).

Key findings

Generally speaking, most female returners (84%) belonged to the 25–44 year-old age group. However, differences between the eastern and western German states still exist. In eastern Germany, female returners tended to be younger, 47% being between 25 and 34 years of age. In contrast, the largest age group among female returners in western Germany were the 35–44 year-olds (48%).

Women in the hidden reserve tended to be older in both parts of Germany, that is, 55–64 years-old. In addition, most were married but had no children below the age of 15 living in their households. The IBA analysts suggest that married women in the hidden reserve may rely more on their husband’s income and not need to return to the labour market. Traditional role models might also play a role in this context, with the responsibility for child raising and caring for sick relatives still mainly being borne by women.

In contrast, many of the registered female returners were single parents, a group that might have a greater need to secure the family income. Income concerns might also explain the striking differences concerning the working time preferences within the group of female returners. In eastern Germany, female returners were mostly looking for a full-time job (81%). This compares to only 28% of their western German counterparts, who preferred part-time employment when returning to work.

Information on the qualification structure of female returners and the hidden reserve in Germany is given in the table below. A high proportion of women in the hidden reserve in 2008 were well-educated and had a university or similar degree or vocational training. These women represent a major resource for the German labour market.

Education level of female returners and hidden reserve in 2008 (%)

Female returners

Female hidden reserve

  Western Germany Eastern Germany Western Germany Eastern Germany
Tertiary education





Secondary education/ vocational training





No vocational training





Note: Table includes rounding differences (deviation from 100%).

Source: Böhm et al. (2011, Table 3)


Female returners and women in the hidden reserve differ in many respects. But to offer more job opportunities to those who are actively seeking employment after taking leave or to those who still need to be motivated to do so, several fundamentals need to be adjusted in Germany. Increasing female full-time employment only seems achievable if more progress is made in the reconciliation of family and working life. On the one hand, more childcare facilities and all-day schools are needed. On the other, traditional role models assigning family obligations solely to women need to be reconsidered. The IAB report recommends that potential women returners who have not received any occupational training could be activated by further training measures.


Böhm, K., Drasch, K., Götz, S. and Pausch, S. (2011), Potenziale für den Arbeitsmarkt. Frauen zwischen Beruf und Familie (452Kb PDF) [Potentials for the labour market. Women between a job and family], IAB Short Report 23/2011, Institute for Employment Research, Nuremburg.

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

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