Last year, I moved to Germany after having spent my entire adult life in the UK. Lifestyles are pretty similar now in many rich European countries, but I was struck by one difference – whereas many British mums continue pursuing their careers, most German ones stay at home. At least, this was my first impression. Digging down into statistics and surveys, however, I found that the big difference was not in the numbers, but in attitudes.

Two caveats. First, the numbers that I cite here come from various statistical sources and surveys and are not directly comparable across countries. They are for illustration purposes only (and I hope that someone will do more rigorous work on this subject). Second, there is lots of research about the impact – good and bad – that nurseries and nannies can have on early child development. My article is not about that.

Here is what the broad picture looks like: most German mums do not work in the first year after their child was born. In the UK, most mums are back at work six to nine months after giving birth. One reason surely is that maternity leave and pay conditions are more generous in Germany. Moreover, while in the UK positions are usually kept open for one year, German mums have the right to return to their previous jobs up to three years after giving birth.

Most German mums decide to stay at home for that long. Only one-third of mothers with kids under three go to work in Germany, the vast majority of them part-time. Fewer than one in ten works full-time. Correspondingly, German babies and young toddlers are half as likely to go to nurseries or child-minders than British ones.

This changes drastically when the kids hit three and go to kindergarten. Then the share of German and British kids that are in some sort of formal care equalizes at over 80% – and the share of German working mums doubles to over 60%; yet, the vast majority of them continue to work part-time. One reason might be that traditionally, German kindergartens close in the middle of the afternoon although this is changing.

There is no further jump in female labour market participation when the kids go to school. Most German schools still close at mid-day and afterschool childcare is not yet widely available. It is only when the kids become teenagers (around age 15) that more German mothers return to full-time work. Still, more than two-thirds stay part-time; and one-third stays at home.

The classical German family therefore consists of a man who works full-time and a woman who works part-time. Germany has Europe’s lowest share of families where both parents work full-time (the Netherlands is a special case because, unusually, Dutch men also often work part-time).

What are the implications of this? First, it is only the flexibility of part-time work that has enabled millions of German women to work at all. The overall female employment rate in Germany is now a little higher than in the UK. It is just that in Germany more women work part-time. And career breaks are often measured in decades, not months.

Part-time work often makes it easier to combine work with family time. But the prevalence of part-time work and the length of career breaks also have downsides.

Half of the German women who work part-time say they would like to work longer hours. One reason could be that it is almost impossible to build a career on 20 hours a week. Most bosses and HR executives still believe that managers should be available at all hours. Moreover, part-time jobs are heavily concentrated in a few areas, such as secretarial, social care and retail.

Germany’s part-timers also tend to work shorter hours than their European peers. Millions are employed in so-called mini-jobs that have no tax or social security attached. Their pay usually stays low and they often do not accumulate sufficient pension entitlements. The OECD says that Germany’s state pension system is particularly bad for low earners and part-time workers. The “gender pension gap”, which measures the difference between what retired men and women get is the second highest in Europe. Many more women than men are poor when they hit old age.

And many women struggle long before that: the divorce rate in Germany is one in three; and one in five German families is now headed by a lone parent, usually the mother. Around 40% of them rely on basic social security to make ends meet.

Returning to the UK, many of these indicators – be it divorce rates, the share of stay-at-home mums or poverty among single mums and elderly ladies – do not look fundamentally different. So why do I get the impression that Germany makes it harder for working mums?

Perhaps the biggest difference is in public attitudes. In Britain, the question of whether and how much a mother should work is seen as a matter of either necessity or personal preference. In Germany, the debate has a moralizing, sometimes even antagonistic, tone.

The British pragmatism is reflected in surveys. For example, a majority of British women say they would like to combine a career with raising a family if possible. Almost two-thirds of British men would be happy to stay at home and look after the kids if their wife was earning enough.

In Germany, although the studies are not directly comparable, they seem to reflect a view that mothers should stay home. Just one in five Germans think that mothers of young children should work full-time. Only 40% of men say they would accept a setback in their own career to allow their wives get ahead. And the women quite a agree: fewer than half of German women want to see a change in the prevalent division of gender roles.

And yet, I cannot help the feeling that the current set-up is not working for everyone. In many European countries, including the UK, the birth rate has recovered in recent years. In Germany, it is stuck at under 1.4. Those countries that make it easier for families to combine kids and careers have much higher birth rates, for example France (2.1) and Sweden (1.9). Germany also has the highest share of permanently childless women in the world.

Although public policy is changing in Germany – for example, there are now more full-time nursery places available – prevailing attitudes still leave many German women with the feeling that they must choose between work and family.

Author: Katinka Barysch is Director of Political Relations, Allianz SE, Germany. She is also a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and Global Agenda Council Member. The views expressed here are her own.

Image: Claudia (R) and her dauther Katharina cook lunch at their home in Durach, southern Germany June 20, 2012.