Women's negative special position on the labor market is often connected to the fact that they have children and are on parental leave. This is, for example, the case in Austria and the cultural neighbors Germany and Switzerland. "There is an unspoken expectation for women to do the unpaid work in the home," says Austrian social anthropologist and preschool teacher Hannah Büchel to Utvecklingsmagasinet. Photo: Agnes Fältman.

FUF-correspondents, Report

Great challenge with gender equality in German-speaking Europe

In a part of Europe where a woman's role has long meant being a housewife, a new old structure has emerged: female part-time work in combination with unpaid work in the home. As a result, the German-speaking countries have among the largest wage differences between women and men in all of Europe. But today's young people increasingly question status quo and want to see a change. 

It is early afternoon in central Vienna. Parents, mainly mothers, gather outside the preschools and school gates to pick up their children. A very normal sight, many local residents think. But the fact is that this is one of many examples of the skewed distribution of care work between the country's men and women.

In Austria and its cultural neighbors Switzerland and Germany, a part of Europe that has long been characterized by a strong housewife ideal, is still the norm for women to take one career step back to take care of the home. This leads in the long run to continued inequality between the sexes, shows EU statistics. 

— The traditional gender roles play a large role in this division of labor. Especially in my parents' generation, but also in my own, there is an unspoken expectation for women to do the unpaid work in the home, even though everyone is aware of the inequality between the sexes, says the Austrian social anthropologist and preschool teacher Hannah Büchel to Uttvecklingsmagasinet.  

2023 worked approx 50 percent of the Austrian women part-time, which is the second highest proportion in the entire EU. In neighboring Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU but is part of the German-speaking cultural community, and Germany, the figures look similar, and they are clearly different from EU average which in 2022 was approximately 30 percent.  

When looking at men's part-time work, the contrast becomes clear: in Germany and Austria, only about ten percent of men work part-time, which stands out as the biggest gender gap in the Union. When Austrian men work part-time, however, it is not because of time-consuming duties at home, unlike the women. In a government conducted study they cite education or professional training and "no desire for full-time work" as the main reasons. 

The ultimate consequence of this gender division is that the German-speaking countries, often referred to as the DACH countries, have among the largest wage gaps between women and men in all of Europe, as part-time workers in these countries often have less chance of climbing the career ladder and to a greater extent work in low-paid sectors. Austria had it second largest pay gap across the EU in 2022. Women's average hourly wages there were 18,4 percent lower than men's, and both Germany and Switzerland had pay gaps of around 18 percent. In comparison with the EU average, which in 2022 was 12,7 percent, as well as with Sweden's 11 percent, the numbers stand out.  

Hannah Büchel has previously worked at a preschool in Sweden. "The biggest difference I experienced was that the work of the pedagogues was more appreciated and that the business therefore received more support from the state and municipality," she says. She also points to a recognition of the unpaid care work in the home at both state and EU level as an important aspect of gender equality work. Photo: Agnes Fältman.
Family formation is an obstacle for working women

In Austria, like in the world at large, women's negative special position on the labor market is often connected to the fact that they have children and are on parental leave, which en recent study shows. 80 percent of the working women surveyed needed to reduce their working hours after parental leave and only half were able to continue working in the same role. In addition, a third experienced reduced work tasks and lower wages upon return, which has negative effects on their future pension. 

The birth of a child, on the other hand, does not have to affect the father's career at all. The majority of them continue to work in the same role and for the same number of hours as they did before. This is made possible by the fact that fathers have no obligation to take parental leave in Austria, which means that few actually do. Less than one percent of fathers in the country are on parental leave for six months or longer, while the majority of women are at home for up to two years. Even in Germany, the difference between the sexes is large, then only ten procent of fathers take parental leave that lasts longer than two months. 

— Here, for example, the EU could contribute with an even better overall structure through legislation that makes parental leave attractive to all genders, that recognizes unpaid care work as real work, and that therefore offers financial incentives for it, Hannah Büchel believes. 

In fact, the EU has tried to tackle the problem through its own "Balance Directive", which was introduced in 2022. The directive aims to introduce the possibility to reserve two months of the leave for fathers or other guardians in the member states. The catch, however, is that this easily avoidable by one parent, typically the mother, taking the entire leave, which is then shortened by a few months. Such is the case in Austria. 

Hannah Büchel also points to it lack of childcare in large parts of the German-speaking countries as an important aspect of gender equality work. There is a constant lack of places and the children can usually remain at the preschool or school only until lunch or early afternoon in a so-called “Half-day school”, that is, day school, which is the norm in the German-language school systems. According to Hanna Büchel, the responsibility for taking care of the children for the rest of the day, like in previous generations, falls on the women. 

Women who, despite cultural expectations, work full-time in the DACH countries – that is, Germany, Austria and Switzerland – have long been confronted with the slur "Raven nut", which in Swedish reads "raven mother". The word is used to blame working women for spending too little time with their children, with the image of a mother raven abandoning her chicks in the nest for comparison. 

The younger generations want to break away from traditional gender roles, a recent study shows. Young women want to see a more equal distribution of parental leave and work more than their own mothers did. Photo: Agnes Fältman.
A changing female role

At the same time that female part-time work has over time become an effective way to get more women into work, instead of being housewives, the traditional division of household chores and child care has remained. In Austria, women perform more than two-thirds of care workt, and when paid and unpaid working hours added together on average, women work more hours per week than men in the DACH countries, according to EU statistics. Hannah Büchel believes that unpaid work is rarely considered just work, and that it is therefore not valued as highly in society. 

— If we were to consider this care and household work as an intensive and emotionally demanding occupation, society would benefit doubly: Women who gainfully work in care would be more appreciated and the professions would become more attractive. At the same time, women in these sectors are more likely to receive the same respect and pay as their male counterparts, enabling part-time workers to more comfortably increase their working hours if they wish. 

However, the fact that many women, unlike men, work part-time does not always have to be a negative thing, emphasizes Hannah Büchel. Those who have the opportunity to work less and focus on their relationships and thus on "reproductive work", as Hannah Büchel calls it, may see it as a privilege rather than a limitation. That part-time employees in the DACH countries get extensive tax breaks also motivates many to reduce working hours. 

The attitude among the younger generations, on the other hand, appears to be changing, one shows study recently carried out on behalf of the Austrian government. More young couples want to share the housework equally and young girls and women want to break away from traditional gender roles. They also want to work to a greater extent than their own mothers did and to divide parental leave more fairly. Hannah Büchel agrees with that.  

What I wish for the future is that there should be structures and common values ​​in place that make it possible for women to choose for themselves without burdens whether they want to work part-time or not, she says. 

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