The 2007 parental leave reform was a gamechanger in Germany's family policies. But there is still room for improvement.

Germany’s leave laws for parents are divided in two periods: a 14-week maternity protection (Mutterschutz), a shorter 100% paid leave, exclusive for women before and after birth - followed by a long gender-neutral parental leave (Elternzeit) of up to 14 months. 


In 1878, Germany approved its first law concerning maternity health: a three week period before birth in which mothers were not allowed to work. Between 1903 and 1911, the leave was increased to 8 weeks of paid leave (two of them to be taken before birth). Job security for working mothers was introduced in 1924. In 1968, maternity leave was increased to 14 weeks of full salary (the bill was split between social security and the employer).


In 1986, a longer paid leave was added to the existing maternity leave, to be taken by mothers after the initial 14 weeks. It lasted 4 months and depended on the average salary received during the 3 months prior to childbirth. In 1986 the parental leave was introduced. During this gender-neutral leave fathers were given the opportunity to also stay home with their children. The benefit could last  up to 8 months and families received the fixed monthly amount of DM 600 (300 euros). From the next years on, the parental leave was succeedingly extended and flexibilized, to 10 months (1988), 13 months (1990) and 16 months (1992). In 2001, it could last up to 34 months (22 of them eligible for the 300 euro payment).


The biggest change, however, came in 2007. Following the Swedish model, Germany created a shorter, income-related parental leave. It can last up to 14 months and parents get between 65% to 67% of their previous salaries during the leave, with a 1,800 euros limit . The “partner months” (Partnerschaftsmonate) were also created, copying the Swedish model: an extra two month of leave if both parents take the leave - if only one stays home, the total time is 12 months. In the following years, “Elterngeld Plus” was introced: a possibility if extending the financial support of parental leave if parents decide to go back to work part-time. Aiming for a more gender equal division of labour, the “Partnerschatfsbonus” was created 4 extra weeks of Elterngeld Plus if both parents work part-time and share childcare. The 2007 reform has had huge impacts on German society.

I like my job very much. Sometimes I read the minutes of the meetings from distance, or look for something that I can do online. I am staying up to date, so to say. Because otherwise it would be quite boring [during Elternzeit]. My plan is to start working a little bit in June already. I will go at the Jugendamt and see how this works out, because apparently it makes more sense not to work than to work, because otherwise you get less money. That´s a strange system.

M.B - 36 years - 12 months of parental leave.

Before the new parental leave law, Germany used to be a showcase example of a conservative corporatist welfare state, according to Esping-Andersen’s classification(1). In a conservative welfare regime, social benefits are strong and wide-ranging, and social welfare is mainly provided by the state. Care work, however, is not necessarily covered by the government. Instead, families are seen as the main institution responsible for care in these countries - what, of course, means mostly women. In these states (not only Germany, but also Austria and Italy, according to Esping-Andersen) women are expected to care for the young and the elderly, a tradition historically reinforced by the Church and which ended up shaping traditional family models. 


This means, for example, that childcare facilities are relatively scarce and not necessarily aimed for all children in these countries. In fact, in Germany, up until 2013, children under the age of three were not entitled to a spot in nurseries and preschools. German mothers also have relatively long work interruptions throughout their careers compared to other European countries, especially during childbearing years. Public policies for families prioritize the male breadwinner model instead of the adult worker model (in which both partners go to work), with tax incentives and cash-transfer policies, instead of universal and full-time childcare facilities(2).


Institutionally, Germany in many respects is the prototypical example of the conservative continental European welfare regime as far as decommodification is concerned, combined with a system of generous family policies geared toward supporting the traditional gender division of labor. German family policies have historically exhibited a focus on universal cash transfers to families, notably through universal child benefits and generous tax breaks to single-earner families through its system of joint income taxation. Also, Germany’s long-established semipublic kindergarten system does provide near-universal coverage of subsidized child care facilities primarily aimed at children ages 3–6, yet prekindergarten child care has, up until very recently, been strongly familialized via both generous parental leave entitlements and a lack of both private and public prekindergarten child care facilities.(3)

This tradition, of course, still has its impacts in social expectations and in the gender division of labor. “Rabenmutter” - which literally means “raven mother” and designates mothers that don’t care enough about their children - is an expression still surprisingly common in conversations with German specialists. As a matter of fact, 42% of Germans believe that family life suffers when women have a full-time job(4), which is surprisingly high. For six of every ten German men, the ideal family model is a man working full-time and a woman in a part-time job(4).


The 2007 reform in parental leave was probably the biggest shift in that tradition. It shortened the time women spend in leave, encouraged them to go back to work and also caused a measurable change in social norms(5) in steering men towards childcare. Between 2007 and 2015, the participation in the labor market of women with children under 3 grew from 60% to 67%. At the same time, the attendance rate for children aged younger than 3 years increased from 8% to 27% in West Germany and from 40% to 52% in East Germany(6). 

The expression comes from the fact that baby ravens apparently leave their nests at a very young age and end up helpless on the ground while their mothers only watch. In fact, ironically enough, the real raven mothers keep on feeding and looking out for their offspring even after they leave the nest

Why 'Rabenmutter'?

In Germany, men and women have roughly the same educational levels - but they have very different working situations. 48% of German women work in part-time, compared to only 11% of men(7). In fact, the most common family/work constellation in the country is the one where the man works full-time and the woman has a part-time job - around 45% of cases. "We can say that over the years Germany changed from the male breadwinner model to the one-and-a-half worker model", says Katharina Spieß, a professor of family economics at Freie Universität Berlin and at the Deutsches Institut Wirtschaftsforschung (DIW). Because of historical long maternal leaves, the lack of public childcare and the traditional breadwinner model, it is common for women to reduce their working hours when they become mothers. Many of them never return to full-time or drop out of the job market entirely: almost one in every five married women between the ages of 30 and 50 in Germany has no income at all(8).


There is, of course, nothing essentially wrong in working part-time jobs - it is a logical and sensible choice for young mothers and, by German law, employers have to accommodate women who want to work in flexible hours after parental leave. But it also has financial consequences. Only 10% of females workers between 30 and 50 earn more than 2,000 net euro a month, compared to 42% of men(9). For married women, the chances of having a high income are even lower: only 6% of them earn more than 2,000 euro. Childrearing years and a fiscal incentive called Ehegattensplitting can partly explain this difference.


This difference in income has huge consequences especially if couples don’t live happily ever after, which is the case for 1 in every 3 marriages in Germany, that end up in divorce. Thus, the most fragile period in women's lives becomes retirement age. 74% of divorced women expect to earn no pension at all when the time comes, which, of course, puts them at a greater risk of poverty in old age. In fact, elderly poverty has been increasing in Germany in the past 10 years. For that reason, German government has announced a new basic pension for 1,5 million people in 2021.


A research that compared motherhood penalties - the loss of income that women suffer after the birth of their first child - between Scandinavian countries, English-speaking and German-speaking countries has shown that the loss in income reaches its highest in Germany, at up to 61% in the long run(10).  


Another big driver for part-time jobs is the early childhood educational system in Germany. Most schools in Germany are open only in the morning and one in every three preschools close before 4 pm. Someone has to be home to pick up all those children, after all. It was only in 2013, as an after-effect of the 2007 parental leave reform, that children between 1 and 3 years of age were giving the legal right to a spot in preschools. Up until this day the state does not have the obligation to offer children under 1 a nursery spot - which of course make parents (but mostly women) choose to stay a whole year in parental leave. In practical terms, the system works at its best when a mother takes 12 months of parental leave, the father uses his 2-months quota - and then the child goes to preschool. 


After 2013, with the expansion of preschool rights for children between 1 and 3, Germany has been investing in early childcare facilities, but not without mishaps. There is still a chronic lack of spots in preschools, especially in urban areas. There are 273,000 Kitaspots lacking for children under 3 and a shortage of 106,500 preschool teachers in Germany. 


In some regions, such as in Berlin, the lack of spots in preschool is especially severe. Extreme cases have recently made for good headlines in the media. Parents have reached out to unorthodox solutions, such as the berliner father who went to eBay to announce a 5,000-euro reward for whoever finds him a Kita-spot in his desired neighbourhood. Others are filing legal appeals against the state to hasten the search for a vacancy, on the basis of the government's obligation to provide spots for all children over one year of age. Others again are starting demonstrations, as said below:


“What gave my colleague the idea to start the demo is because she went to all these parents groups where she met these great moms. They were all these really strong characters, great professionals, who organize everything in their lives, and they all had failed to find a Kitapost. And all of them thought that the problem was with them. They thought: “I did something wrong, why didn’t I start earlier, why didn’t I send a nicer email?” But the problem wasn’t them”

Katharina Mahrt, co-founder of the Kitakrise demonstration, that fights against the lack of preschool spots in Berlin and the bad working conditions of preschool teachers.

On March 8th 2019, the German finance researcher Daniel Eich was awarded "Top Father of the Year" in a competition promoted by a national bakery company. What made him worthy of this reward? He took an entire year of parental leave so that his wife, meteorologist Insa Thiele-Eich, could act as the first German female astronaut at the International Space Station. He got 5,000 euros for his deed. Many critics pointed out the irony of celebrating a father who did exactly the same thing as more than 90% of women in Germany do - which is spending 10 or more months at home when their children are born(11).


One of the biggest effects of the 2007 reform was the increase in fathers’ participation in the leave. As in 2006, almost no men took time off work (3%) to spend it with their babies, but the daddy quota significantly changed that. The involvement has been increasing yearly ever since and nowadays 36% of new dads take some kind of parental leave(12). It is common to see fathers on the streets with their newborn babies, especially in urban areas.


This number, however, hides the fact that most of them (72%) only use the two take-it-or-leave-it months, that would be lost otherwise. Most of them choose to stay home one month when the baby is born and another month at the end of the mother’s leave, when the child is getting settled in preschool. When fathers take more than two month, another common arrangement is to take this extra time to travel abroad with the family. Also, not all men take the leave equally. University-educated fathers and public employers are more likely to use the benefit(13). Overall, the bulk of the leave is still, by far, used by women.


There are many different reasons for this - traditional social norms, as we have seen, is among the strongest of them. In Sweden, for example, a country with historically stronger gender equality policies, 90% of men take some time of parental leave. In Germany, one out of every five fathers says they did not use the benefit fearing professional setbacks - whereby studies have shown that there are no big measurable backlashes(14). 


Slowly, however, social norms are changing. The majority of young men say that they are way more engaged with their children than their own fathers were. Studies have shown that the simple fact of taking some time of parental leave can cause changes towards more equality in work/family balance: one of every 4 men who stayed home with their babies also decide to work less hours afterwards(15). Sixty percent of them say that their ideal family arrangement would be one in which both parents are equally responsible for earning money, doing childcare and sharing housework Reality, so far, has not quite caught up with that dream, though.

A tax benefit called Ehegattensplitting is another obstacle towards a more equal distribution of labor in Germany. This tax policy, created in 1958, treats married or living-in couples as a fiscal unit and is especially lucrative if there is a significant income difference between partners - i.e. if one partner earns significantly more than the other. The highest tax exemption can be attained if one partner does not have an income and all and the other is responsible for maintaining the household. If both earn the same salary, for example, the benefit disappears.

Since historically women earn less than men, this policy can be seen as a disencouragement for women to enter the workforce. There is no surprise that the Ehegattensplitting favours stay-at-home mothers and the male breadwinner model. Comparative studies have shown, for example, that countries with joint taxation have lower female labour supply than those with individual taxation(17).

This policy was created as an incentive for married men - who usually supported wife and children on a single income - so that they would pay less taxes than unmarried people. This made sense six decades ago, when mostly and exclusively men were in the workplace - but has not been abolished since. 

German society, however, has changed extensively in the last decades, especially regarding the insertion of women in the workplace. In 1983, for example, less than 50% of married women were employed - a number which has risen to 75% in 2013. Another shift happened in family models: in the 1950, 90% of children were born inside of wedlock. In 2013, the percentage was 65%(18). This also highlights another inefficiency of the Ehengattensplitting: its focus on the marital status instead of the existence of children in a relationship. If a couple decides to get divorced or even if one spouse dies, the tax advantage disappears - to a point where widowed parents have to pay almost as much taxes as people who never had children. 

There is, however, no sign of change in the near future. The Bundesministerium der Finanzen (Germany’s Finance Ministry) states that “the Federal government has no plans for rule revisions of the so-called Ehegattensplitting in this legislative period” and points out that this was established by the most recent coalition agreement(18). In fact, the 2018 Koalitionsvertrag (the contract signed between ruling parties to establish goals for the forthcoming legislation) signed by CDU/CSU, and SPD did not mention any alteration in the Ehegattensplitting. Instead, it offered a generic promise to “reinforce and relieve families” and to increase the “conciliation of family and professional lives". Parents and children surely benefit from many public policies in Germany – but for gender equality to become a reality any time soon, government promises will have to be more specific than that. 

1.  Esping-Andersen, Gøsta. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1990. 

2. Markus Gangl and Andrea Ziefle, "The Making of a Good Woman: Extended Parental Leave Entitlements and Mothers’ Work Commitment in Germany," American Journal of Sociology 121, no. 2 (September 2015): 511-563.

3. ISSP Research Group (2016): International Social Survey Programme: Family and Changing Gender Roles IV - ISSP 2012. GESIS Data Archive, Cologne.

4. Bild der Frau (2013): DER MANN 2013: Arbeits- und Lebenswelten – Wunsch und Wirklichkeit, Hamburg, S. 55

5. Unterhofer, Ulrike; Welteke, Clara; Wrohlich, Katharina (2017) : Elterngeld

hat soziale Normen verändert, DIW-Wochenbericht, ISSN 1860-8787, Deutsches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung (DIW), Berlin, Vol. 84, Iss. 34, pp. 659-667

6. Gundula Zoch; Pia S. Schober. “Public Childcare Expansion and Changing Gender Ideologies of Parents in Germany”. Journal of Marriage and Family 80 (4): 1020-39. 2018

7. Bundesagentur für Arbeit, Statistik/Arbeitsmarktberichterstattung, Berichte: Blickpunkt Arbeitsmarkt – Die Arbeitsmarktsituation von Frauen und Männern 2018, Nürnberg, Juli, 2019

8. 9. Bundesministerium für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend. “Mitten im Leben: Wünsche und Lebenswirklichkeiten von Frauen zwischen 30 und 50 Jahren”, 2016.

10. Kleven, Henrik; Landais, Camille; Posch, Johanna; Steinhauer, Andreas; Zweimüller, Josef. “Child Penalties Across Countries: Evidence and Explanations", National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper Series, n. 25524, 2019.

11. Samtleben, Claire, Schäper, Clara and Wrohlich, Katharina, (2019), Elterngeld und Elterngeld Plus: Nutzung durch Väter gestiegen, Aufteilung zwischen Müttern und Vätern aber noch sehr ungleich, DIW Wochenbericht, 86, issue 35, p. 607-613.

12. Statistisches Bundesamt, 2017

13. Esther Geisler; Michaela Kreyenfeld. “Policy reform and fathers’ use of parental leave in Germany: The role of education and workplace characteristics”. Journal of European Social Policy, 29(2):273. 2019

14. BMFSFJ. “Väterreport: Vater sein in Deutschland heute”. 2018

15. Hobler, Pfahl. Einflussfaktoren auf die Arbeitszeitdauer von Vätern nach den Elterngeldmonaten Berlin; zur Frage nach der Repräsentativität der Studie siehe dort S. 14 f. 2015.

16.  Apps, Patricia, and Ray Rees. “Fertility, Taxation and Family Policy.” The Scandinavian Journal of Economics, vol. 106, no. 4, 2004, pp. 745–763.

17. Bundesministerium der Finanzen. “Zur Reform der Besteuerung von Ehegatten: Gutachten des Wissenschaftlichen Beirats beim Bundesministerium der Finanzen”. 02/2018

18. Information obtained through a press inquiry

Germany is used as a comparison because the research was conducted at Freie Universität Berlin, as part of the German Chancellor Fellowship, a Alexander von Humboldt Foundation initiative.