“The fact that the birth rate is higher in France is not because French women have different preferences, but because of economic considerations,” says Cäcilia Lipowski, researcher in the ZEW Research Department “Labour Markets and Human Resources” and co-author of the study. “The better developed childcare provision in France made it easier for women to reconcile their family and work life. Mothers in France suffered fewer career disadvantages than in Germany.”
The study is the first to use comparable detailed information on the employment histories and birth registers of more than 270,000 women from Germany and France. This extensive data pool makes it possible to take cross-national quantitative analyses to a new level.
Mothers in France started working again earlier
The researchers looked at women of childbearing age between 1994 and 2007, and found that women in France were on average not only less likely to remain childless but also more likely to have large families with three or more children. What is striking is the comparatively sharp decline in the number of mothers with two children in Germany – from 36.1 per cent in the oldest birth cohorts to 14.5 per cent in the youngest birth cohorts. The proportion of women with two children in France, on the other hand, remained almost the same at over 30 per cent.
At the time their first child was born, almost half of all women in Germany (47 per cent) and France (45 per cent) were not working. In Germany, this figure rose to 65 per cent and 74 per cent for the second and third child, respectively; in France, it was only 48 per cent and 58 per cent, respectively. “It was easier for French women to remain active in the labour market after the birth of their child,” says ZEW Research Associate Ralf Wilke, professor at the Copenhagen Business School and co-author of the study. “Mothers in France are more likely to start working again between births. In contrast, it is more common in Germany to have another child during parental leave.”
Fewer childcare options in Germany
The more difficult it is to reconcile work and family life, the more mothers have to make sacrifices in their careers. “For mothers, these so-called opportunity costs include loss of earnings, the interruption and potential prevention of their careers and the loss of work-related knowledge and skills. Such economic considerations are particularly relevant for well-educated women, and those with high incomes,” says Cäcilia Lipowski. “Due to the poorer childcare coverage, these costs were particularly high in Germany. The influence of opportunity costs on the birth rate was about twice as strong in Germany as in France.”
While the French state made it possible for mothers to remain active in the labour market despite having a child, the male breadwinner model still prevailed in Germany. Many mothers had to interrupt their careers because there was no adequate care option for their child. Starting in the 1990s, childcare places for children aged three to six were gradually expanded. However, it was difficult to reconcile the opening hours of the daycare centres with everyday working life. In contrast to France, there were hardly any childcare options for under three-year-olds. Overall, France spent between 1.8 and 3.6 times as much money on childcare as Germany during the period under review.
Women with university degrees often postponed family planning
In both countries, but particularly in Germany, mothers had part-time jobs in order to be able to continue working. Women who worked part-time were more likely to have children than women who worked full-time or not at all. “The negative effect of full-time work in Germany is more than twice as strong as in France. The German childcare situation seems to have been more difficult to reconcile with a full-time job,” says Ralf Wilke. “In Germany, women with university degrees were more likely to avoid pregnancy during their first years on the job. Moreover, they postponed family planning more often than in France. This also indicates that in Germany it is more difficult to reconcile family and career.”
Improved childcare options would therefore prevent women from having to choose between having children and their careers. As the example of France shows, appropriate family policy measures can both raise birth rates and increase the proportion of women working full-time.
Data basis: The authors considered data on maternity and employment of 173,843 women from Germany and 102,574 women from France. The study is based on the biographical data of selected social insurance agencies in Germany (BASiD) and the French data set DADS-EDP 2010.