BERLIN (Reuters) - A pitbull with lipstick may not be every woman’s idea of a role model.
Indeed, many liberal women hate everything arch-Republican U.S. vice presidential candidate and self-proclaimed hockey mom Sarah Palin stands for, even as conservatives are enamored by her down-to-earth leadership style and jokes such as one comparing hockey moms to attack dogs with lipstick.
But like her or loathe her, women around the globe are fascinated by Palin’s juggling act as an aspiring Vice President, governor of Alaska and mother of five.
Combining a career with motherhood is a battle familiar to millions of working women who are often accused of failing to look after their children properly.
“It’s seriously stressful having a family and holding down a career. I often feel guilty,” said Gill Thomas, a 43-year-old lawyer with a 2-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son.
“Childcare is alright until the kids are sick. That’s when it’s a nightmare and I do feel as if colleagues, family and friends sometimes disapprove of my lifestyle.”
Getting women to have children and work poses a conundrum for governments who have begun to realize that women hold the answer to the dual challenges of achieving long-term economic growth and boosting sagging birth rates.
Closing the gap between male and female employment would dramatically boost the economies of OECD countries — by up to 13 percent in the euro zone and even more in Japan, say Goldman Sachs economists.
“This is an issue that is agitating policymakers across the world,” said Alison Maitland, a UK-based academic and writer specializing in women in business.
“There is a huge gap between women’s talents and skills and the use of that potential. It requires a concerted effort by governments and the private sector in collaboration,” she said.
What’s more, nations with a high proportion of women in work, such as the Nordic States and France, tend to have high birth rates. Meanwhile, countries with fewer working women, such as Italy and Japan, often have lower birth rates.
On the face of it, Germany, which three years ago elected Angela Merkel as its first female chancellor, is a positive example, as it has a relatively high share of women in the labor force compared to other OECD nations.
But a deeper look tells a different story.
Not only do 20 percent of women aged 25 to 54 work less than 20 hours a week but the maternal employment rate is below the OECD average, says Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank analyst Claire Schaffnit-Chatterjee.
Merkel, who has no children, exemplifies this trend which may help explain why women account for only a quarter of Germany’s senior managers and a third of its federal lawmakers.
On top of that, Germany’s birth rate is one of the lowest in the EU.
The government, alarmed at the demographics which mean a shrinking labor force and growing dependence on immigrant workers plus ballooning pension and healthcare costs, now offers financial incentives for women to have more babies.
But changing entrenched attitudes poses perhaps an even bigger challenge to the government.
Until 1957, married German women needed their husband’s permission to take paid employment, and working mothers are often derided as “Rabenmuetter” or “raven mothers,” suggesting they push their young out of the nest too early.
“It is deeply engrained in German culture that the mother should mainly look after childcare,” said Deutsche Bank analyst Schaffnit-Chatterjee, who had to delay returning to work due to a lack of appropriate childcare.
Women who plan to return to their careers when their children start school are stymied by a school system that makes it hard for mothers to hold down full-time jobs.
“Mothers get a real shock when children start school as they mainly finish in time for lunch at home,” Schaffnit-Chatterjee added, noting also that schools sometimes send children home if their teacher is sick, assuming mothers are on hand.
The old adage about the role of women: “Children, Church, Kitchen” still rings true for a large number of Germans, men and women alike.
In the last few years, Germany has raised the number of nursery places on offer and provided higher child benefits, but the steps have mainly been aimed at getting women to have more babies rather than encouraging mothers back to work.
Experts say this is the wrong approach and governments need a comprehensive range of policies that do both.
“Governments throwing money at subsidized childrearing does not work,” said Maitland, noting that Japan had also tried that path and failed.
“It’s not what women want to do. These governments just don’t get that women want to work.”
Forced to choose, women in developed countries tend to opt for work over children, say economists, and those who do not work have less money, itself an obstacle to having a family.
“I enjoy my job, which involves a lot of travel, and although there hasn’t been a conscious choice, I have focused on work over the years and now I doubt I’ll have children,” said Lucy Ward, 39, who works at a marketing company in London.
Andrea Bassanini, senior economist at the OECD in Paris, says, however, that governments can change attitudes.
“Policy can certainly affect culture,” he says, citing Nordic countries, which have the highest proportions of working women and have recently stabilized falling birth rates.
“These countries decided their tax system would work better with two earners in a family rather than with one breadwinner and they developed a system that put women into work,” he said.
“At the start there wasn’t total support for the system, now the changes are deeply entrenched.”
The culture has changed so much that Iceland has just appointed women to head two of its main banks after the collapse of its male-dominated financial system.
First, governments have to make sure good and affordable childcare is available as without that, few mothers will even consider leaving their offspring to go to work.
Tax is also important. Bassanini says countries need at least a tax-neutral system for second earners. Some experts even advocate a gender-based system to encourage women to work more.
It is not only the Nordic countries that are a model.
France, with a relatively high birth rate, has family policies that are conducive to getting women working, including generous parental allowances and good, state-subsidized childcare.
Experts say that system could be a model for the 27-nation EU which is trying to extend fully paid maternity leave and protect jobs for women who take leave.
More women in the prime of their life now work in France than in Germany, the United States and Britain, says the OECD.
But women who successfully juggle work and children still contend with criticism for, on the one hand, devoting too little time to their children, and on the other, not taking their jobs seriously enough when they stay home to look after sick children.
Even Palin faced stinging criticism for running for the vice presidency when she has a baby with Down’s syndrome.
“When I talk about something my kids have got up to, my male boss crack jokes about how I’d be better off at home. It’s offputting,” said a female professional in Germany who requested anonymity.
Nevertheless, campaigners are mostly heartened by developments in the last few decades and by the wealth of role models young women now have — from Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin in the United States to Germany’s Merkel, former French presidential candidate Segolene Royal and French Justice Minister Rachida Dati, who is a pregnant single-mother-to-be.
“Whatever kind of models they are, the main thing is that they are there and our daughters are seeing them,” said Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, head of gender consultants 20-First.
“These days, girls have models to choose from — a few years ago we had (former British Prime Minister) Margaret Thatcher — but no young women wanted to emulate her.”
Editing by Megan Goldin