Just What I Wanted for International Women's Day: No Daycare
or, Why anyone who marked IWD without talking about motherhood was wasting everyone's time.
Hey, sorry I’m late here. My son’s daycare was closed Wednesday. And the day before that. And the day before that, too. Why? For International Women’s Day, of course.
Yes, International Women’s Day is a public holiday here in Berlin. As it is in lots of places:
Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China (for women only), Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Madagascar (for women only), Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nepal (for women only), Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Zambia.
I don’t know about you, but when I look at that list, the first thing that jumps out at me is what incredible records those countries all have for human rights, and women’s rights especially. I mean, Afghanistan - what a feminist paradise, right? Oh wait, no. No, actually, the main things the states on that extremely varied list - and Berlin - share is a history of Communism. Which is… a mixed bag, let’s say, and leave it at that.
One of the best things to come from that legacy here in Berlin is a well-regulated and state-funded daycare system, that I can send my son to for almost free. It’s actually one of the three chief reasons I am sitting in Berlin as I write this and not, say, Portland, or Dublin. And I am very grateful to have it.
However. Every system comes with frustrations. And one here is that the daycares close for a lot of holidays. And not just for the days that are the actual public holidays, but often for days on either side of them. If there’s a public holiday that falls on a Tuesday, for example, they’ll close for the Monday, too, to give their employees a long weekend. They call these in-between days ‘Brückentage’, or ‘bridging days’. Which makes a kind of sense, and I don’t begrudge anyone a break. Especially during a time-honoured festive season, like Christmas, or if the weather is particularly gorgeous, in the summer. People should be cozy at home, or out enjoying the sun, at those times, for sure.
But three days off for Women’s Day?!
I mean, what is the point of Women’s Day? Why is it a holiday?
According to the official IWD website, the first National Women’s Day in the US was declared by the Socialist Party of America in 1910. That same year, a German Social Democrat brought the idea to the International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen, where it was well received. During the first few years, some groups marked IWD on March 19th, but the date floated around a bit. In Russia, those observing the occasion did so on the last Saturday of February. But because Russia’s on a different calendar than the West, their late February is our early March, and so according to Western calendars it was on March 8th that the Russian women textile workers protesting on their Women’s Day ended up kicking off the Russian Revolution. So it isn’t surprising that Lenin then made IWD an official holiday in the Soviet Union from that first year of its creation onwards. It wasn’t until 1975 that the United Nations decided to push the holiday, as part of their International Women’s Year campaign. And it wasn’t a public holiday here in Berlin until 2019 (and it still isn’t a public holiday anywhere else in Germany. Just Berlin. Just my luck.)
So. A holiday invented by socialists a little over a century ago. To call attention to the working conditions of women, mainly in factories, which often were genuinely terrible. And to advocate for women’s rights. Like the right to vote, which none of the women who first invented IWD would have had.
Obviously, a huge amount has changed in the century since. Women have all kinds of rights and protections that at least theoretically allow them to participate in politics and in the workforce on virtually the same legal footing as men. Not in every country (Hello again, Afghanistan), but certainly in most modern, more or less functional nation-states. Young women around the world are outperforming young men in school, and make up the majority of college graduates in some countries. And in many cases, they are actually earning more than their male counterparts when they hit the workforce. They are here in Berlin;
The wage gap in Germany’s capital stands at 10 percent, a significant reduction on the rest of the country, where it’s 18 percent. But get into the weeds and things are a bit more complex. Age plays a major role. Female Berliners under the age of 25 actually earn an average of 6 percent more than their male equivalents, while the largest pay gap in the city is between 45 to 49-year-olds, where it stands at 18 percent.
The article cuts off there, unfortunately, without any attempt to poke around into why things look so different for these age groups. Which seems like weird journalism. But let’s think about it for a second. Why would that early advantage not carry on? Why would it not only not continue, but actually nosedive? What do women usually start doing in their twenties, and stop doing by their forties? What’s the one thing that women are doing in those years that men are definitely not doing?
Anyone with a lick of common sense should be able to quickly come up with the answer, which is, of course, having babies.
Which is why calling it the ‘gender’ pay gap is so misleading. It has nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with sex. Because it is actually almost entirely about motherhood.
It’s not like this is a secret or anything. Go look at, say, the World Economic Forum; the Motherhood Penalty is estimated to account for as much as 80% of the supposed ‘gender’ pay gap. 80%. 80!!
Why might that be?
One factor is the enduring shit pile of prejudices and punishments mothers do encounter in the workforce. Like getting fired for getting pregnant. Or getting fired or pushed into a different role during or after their maternity leave. And when these mothers go looking for new jobs? According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW),
Research has shown that hiring managers are less likely to hire mothers compared [to] women who don’t have kids, and when employers do make an offer to a mother, they offer her a lower salary than they do other women. Men, by contrast, do not suffer a penalty when they become dads. In fact, there’s some evidence of a “fatherhood bonus” in which their earnings actually increase.
Another part of the problem is that women who leave formal employment for any amount of time to attend to their caring responsibilities are seen as having ‘gaps’ on their CVs. And according to a LinkedIn survey of 4,000 hiring managers:
some hiring managers are still hesitant to pursue those who have taken a break — indeed, one in five hiring managers say they outright reject such candidates.
So that’s like a 20% chance you’ll be passed over for a job simply for having taken time out for your family.
Then there is the question of mobility; how much you travel for your job. There was a recent study on the role of commuting in the motherhood gap here in Germany. One of their findings was that:
the transition to first parenthood is associated with a 33% decrease in the commuting distance of women, while the transition to fatherhood has no effect.
The same study then calculated that:
23% of the motherhood wage penalty can be attributed to wage losses related to the reduction in commuting distance.
So if maybe 80% of the ‘gender’ pay gap is motherhood, and this is 23% of the motherhood penalty, that means that around 18% of the ‘gender’ pay gap is just down to women not commuting as far once they have kids. Anyone looking to close the pay gap would want to think about this. And the question they’d have to ask is: why don’t women commute as far? Is it because they can’t? Or because they won’t?
And the answer is: Yes. Yes to both.
I mean, women make up half of humanity, and there are two billion mothers in the world. So our range of circumstances is vast. But for many if not most mothers, it is both logistically difficult and existentially horrible to have to go far from our babies and small children. Speaking personally, I only get so many childcare hours in a day; I can’t afford to be wasting loads of them stuck in a car or bus, and can’t afford to risk being stuck miles away at pickup time because of traffic or train delays. And the idea of being in a whole other town if my son gets sick or hurt and needs to be collected early is entirely unacceptable - as is missing bedtime on a regular basis. I couldn’t choose a job with a big commute if I wanted to. And I also don’t want to. Not during these early years.
Many - if not all - discussions around motherhood, and around mothers trying to work in formal employment, fall apart in this quagmire of want versus need; around what choices women are making out of active preference versus a lack of options. We are questioned as to whether we really want or need to have children in the first place, and at every subsequent step of the struggle to be fully present both in our careers and as carers. Are women less likely to hold the highest positions at companies because they are less likely to get them? Or because they are less likely to even want them? Yes. Both. Do women do the vast majority of all unpaid labour because they have to? Or because personally seeing to it that their families are healthy and cared for and loved is something they value and take pride in and even sometimes really enjoy? Yes. Both.
Complicated, ain’t it?
One extremely surprising thing I’ve just learned in researching this post is that the ‘gender’ pay gap in Germany and America is the same. Germany, with its comprehensive and basically free daycare system, still has, as mentioned above, an 18% pay gap. It is nearly the biggest in the whole EU. And Pew reckons that women in America make 82% of what men do, which makes for a 18% gap as well. Isn’t it strange, that such very different counties with such very different provisions for childcare (not to mention healthcare, infrastructure…) would have exactly the same wage gap? How? Is it just a coincidence?
These numbers are so hard to pick apart, and hard to compare. You’re never really comparing like with like. But one thing to keep in mind is that these numbers are comparing people in the workforce. Not those who are out of formal employment, like mothers who stay at home. Which a lot of women are doing these days not because they choose to, but because the cost of childcare is as much as or more than they earn, and so they can’t actually afford to work. In the UK, where the cost of childcare is the highest in Europe, this is a real problem. Which is one of the reasons why loads of mothers have left the workforce in recent years. Another, of course, was the pandemic. Yet, interestingly, by official measures the ‘gender’ pay gap in the UK has actually shrunk since before the pandemic;
Among full-time employees the gender pay gap in April 2022 was 8.3%; this was 7.7% in April 2021 and 9.0% in April 2019 (pre-coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic)
Notice that the year with the lowest gap of the three was 2021, when we were still in pandemic mode. I guess that means that the fact that mother’s careers took massive, massive hits during lockdowns, and so many were forced out of the workforce altogether, actually ‘improved’ the pay gap. In which case, maybe it’s not the best metric to judge women’s lives by.
One of the main reasons given for why Germany’s pay gap is higher than elsewhere in Europe is because women tend to work less hours then men. And this gets painted as a problem. Sometimes this is seen as a structural problem, or blamed on the fact that women in Germany are doing the majority of unpaid domestic work. But women are doing the majority of unpaid work everywhere, so that doesn’t at all explain why German women don’t work more paid hours, or why Germany’s pay gap is 18% while Ireland’s, for example, is less than 10%. Ireland does have nearly the highest childcare costs in the EU though. The average cost of childcare in Ireland is €800 per month. I’m paying €23 per month here in Berlin. I am trying to move to Ireland though, and this week I was looking at a job I’m interested in, in Dublin. €800 would be around a quarter of the take home income for that role. So if I am going to work there, it would have to be full-time. Which I haven’t had to do here in Germany. And I am glad. Especially during the breastfeeding years. Which are foundational, and absolutely exhausting. And which I feel pretty successful about when I think back on. (It’s a shame I can’t include my stellar breastfeeding record on my CV. Or can I?)
I would wager it’s not a complete coincidence then that when you compare breastfeeding rates, Germany looks totally solid, while Ireland looks shockingly dire. And not only is America’s childcare even more expensive than Ireland’s, it still hasn’t even gotten it together to give women paid maternity leave. So when you look at metrics that aren’t just comparing how women clock in against a male benchmark, and aren’t based solely on money, but on human health and wellbeing, you get a different picture of who is ‘winning’ or not, and what other important gaps a society might have. It’s messier, to be sure. But it’s the only hope we have of ever making sense of the choices women are making, and what we actually desire for our careers, and what societal changes and support we actually need and want to achieve that. Maybe we don’t want to be Homo economicus. Maybe no one does.
And it would have been nice to see any of the above addressed at all on the actual International Women’s Day website. Their materials for this year’s Women’s Day mainly focus instead on things like how women “find progress difficult due to workplace microaggressions.” They do acknowledge that women find 'flexibility’ at work desirable, but never elaborate as to why the hell that might be, or what achieving it might actually look like. After hours of sifting through what seems mainly to be excruciatingly sterile LinkedIn and Lean In branded content, I can’t find any use of the words ‘mother’, or ‘children’, or ‘maternity leave’, or ‘family’. Nothing about The Motherhood Penalty. Nothing about women wanting to work reduced or part time hours. Nothing about commuting. Nothing about lactation. And nothing about childcare - not its absolutely fundamental necessity in allowing women to participate in the work force, nor its cost. Nothing.
Look, I am not without professional ambition. I wouldn’t have bothered taking out a boatload of loans to attend the London School of Economics if I hadn’t hoped to do meaningful, rewarding work in the world. I wouldn’t have submitted myself and my weird novel to forty rejections last year if I didn’t really want to be a published author. And I wouldn’t spend ages putting these posts together for zero dollars if I didn’t really care about these issues and want others to engage with my work. But nestled in beside my ambition for my work, and perpetually elbowing it in the face, is my son, and my ambition to be a great mom. I’ve been living with professional failure for a long time, and that is hard. But if I was to one day feel that I had failed as a mother, I’m not sure I could live with it. I don’t know how to reconcile those two ambitious halves of myself, but I do know that anything that doesn’t help me navigate this constant dilemma - and indeed ignores that it even exists - is a waste of my time. And everyone else’s.
This was a very informative and insightful article. I was annoyed that on International Women’s Day the only thing highlighted on the news was Women’s Achievements. To me that is measuring women by a male’s yardstick. Men are all about achievement. That is not the sum total of what I find important. Like you said, that my children are loved, have a secure foundation, that my grandchildren are fulfilled in their lives and know how to love and respect all people and the environment, those are among the things that are important to me. Thanks for this writing. I loved it.