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Freedom of Choice – The Foundation of Family Policies in Europe?

Freedom of Choice – The Foundation of Family Policies in Europe?
Source: Population Europe


Within the framework of the H2020 Project Generations and Gender Programme – Evaluate, Plan, Initiate (GGP-EPI), two policy dialogue events were held at the German House in London on the 4th of November 2019. The first was an Expert Meeting with 22 participants from academia, policy and civil society organisations. Following that event, a public panel discussion was held in the evening on the topic: Freedom of Choice – The Foundation of Family Policies in Europe? Both discussions focused on the comparison between Germany and the UK.


Expert Meeting

Participants at the Expert Meeting included: Gunnar Andersson (Professor in Demography and Head of the Stockholm University Demography Unit, Stockholm University), Christina Boll (Head of the Department Family and Family Policies, German Youth Institute), Adrienne Burgess (Joint Chief Executive and Head of Research, Fatherhood Institute), Martin Bujard (Research Director on Family and Fertility, German Federal Institute for Population Research), Stuart Duffin (National Director for Legal Services, Shelter Scotland), Andreas Edel (Executive Secretary, Population Europe / Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research), Tom Emery (Deputy Director of the Generations and Gender Programme and Researcher at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Erasmus University Rotterdam), Michael Herrmann (Senior Adviser on Economics and Demography, United Nations Population Fund), Francine Hudson (Head of Evidence Development and Family Friendly Policies, Government Equalities Office), Sven Iversen (Director, Arbeitsgemeinschaft der deutschen Familienorganisationen - Association of German Family Organisations), Shireen Kanji (Professor of Work and Organisation Studies, Brunel Business School, Brunel University London), Michaela Kreyenfeld (Professor of Sociology, Hertie School of Governance), Trude Lappegård (Professor of Sociology, University of Oslo), Emily Lines (Research Scientist, Population Europe / Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research), Petra Mackroth (Head of the Family Department, German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth), Alexander Nöhring (Director, Zukunftsforum Familie e. V.), Alison Park (Director of Research, Economic and Social Research Council - ESRC), Brienna Perelli-Harris (Professor in Demography and Departmental Research Coordinator, University of Southampton), Rebecca Sear (Professor of Population Studies and Head of the Department of Population Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine), Wendy Sigle (Professor of Gender and Family Studies, The London School of Economics and Political Sciences) and Daniela Vono de Vilhena (Research Scientist and Scientific Coordinator, Population Europe / Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research).

The event began with two keynote presentations by Martin Bujard and Brienna Perelli-Harris. Bujard presented an overview on family policies and societal changes in Germany. He introduced an overall picture of a shift from the traditional male breadwinner model to the gender equity model (with increasing labour force participation by women and increasing participation in care and housework by men over the years). Family policy played a major role in this transition: Specifically, the change in the relation to female employment happened around 1986 after the implementation of new family policies in the areas of gender equity norms and reconciliation. The country experienced a new paradigm shift between the years of 2004 and 2013, with changes in parental leave in 2007 and expansion of formal child care subsidies, leading to higher levels of employment of mothers with toddlers. Perelli-Harris, in turn, focused her presentation on cohabitation and its relation to childbearing. Even if cohabitation is an becoming a common setting for raising children, marriage is increasingly associated with advantage, e.g., higher occupational status of partners. Marriage is also associated with higher relationship quality, but this does not differ by income group and is not associated with childbearing. She suggested that given the association between cohabitation and economic precarity, legalising cohabitation (e.g., Cohabitation Bill), and allowing cohabiting couples going through separation to access mediation and other legal services may help reduce vulnerabilities.

Following the presentations, a general debate guided by questions followed.

Which goals should family policies pursue? Is it possible to be neutral in terms of family policies? Most participants considered it of key importance to not be neutral and rather to pursue specific objectives in family policies through a specific set of initiatives. Participants agreed on the need to support more flexible gender norms so that all types of family have equal rights and duties within society, and to promote parental and child wellbeing.

Participants critically discussed policies supporting female labour force participation. The role of job flexibility in promoting higher employment among women was questioned: Even if flexibility boosts employment and women’s request for flexible working are approved more often than men’s, it has different consequences for men and women when they use them. Different types of flexible working are used by women to help them with child care, while men mostly use these policies to actually increase their working hours. The need to have policies promoting men being at home and taking care of children was stressed in the meeting. It was also stressed that the workplace culture needs to change, and an environment where it is possible to go home after 4pm to pick up children from school, or where meetings do not start after 4, needs to be created. In Sweden, for example, classes cannot be scheduled after 4pm so that both teachers and students can pick up their children.

Participants discussed the need to better integrate reproductive health and family policies in the way governments work. The need for data was highlighted: If we want to start bridging the gap between what has traditionally been divided between health and family issues, we need the right data. Divorce trends were also on the table: One-third of fathers in Germany do not have contact with children after divorce. We need research on why they break off contact, and the Generations & Gender Programme is key in understanding what is behind this and what are the policies that can help fathers stay involved. Finally, socioeconomic inequalities were mentioned as something that need to be fixed in order to make it easier to implement family policies, which includes access to decent housing.


Panel Discussion

The Panel Discussion following the Expert Meeting included Dr Katarina Barley (Vice-President of the European Parliament, Brussels; former Federal Minister of Justice and Consumer Protection and former Federal Minister of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth in Germany), Prof. Michaela Kreyenfeld (Professor of Sociology at the Hertie School of Governance), and Prof. Wendy Sigle (Professor of Gender and Family Studies at The London School of Economics and Political Sciences). The panel was moderated by Dr Daniela Vono de Vilhena (Scientific Coordinator at Population Europe). Highlights from the debate are presented below.

Katarina Barley:

  • We have to get men involved in family life. We have spent too much time focusing only on women in family policy, but we need to include men. The time they take for parental leave is still very low compared to women. 
  • Family policy is about supporting families. Families need money, time and infrastructure. Germany has focused on money (benefits) and infrastructure (improved childcare), but not enough on time. 
  • At least in Germany, we are not good enough with family policy. We still promote the traditional model and there are situations where it is easier when the mothers stay at home. 
  • If researchers want to communicate with the ministries, the best option is to communicate with the staff. These are the individuals that know the topic in-depth. Politicians want to communicate something in one sentence, which is not always possible to do with research. 

Michaela Kreyenfeld: 

  • Fathers are taking advantage of parental leave in Germany, and this forces companies to deal with this issue. This is how real change happens. 
  • We have cultural understandings about what is good for children, but we can learn from research and from other countries about what’s best.
  • It is important for researchers to understand that ministers have varying interests. Researchers cannot change their agendas as often as ministers change.

Wendy Sigle:

  • By ignoring unpaid work provided by women and grandparents, we are creating a narrow view of economic activity. 
  • In the UK, the idea is that if people are working, then they are out of poverty. But policies that benefit well-off families do not benefit less advantaged families in the same way.
  • There is a danger of assuming there is one ideal solution to any policy area. What works in one setting might not work as well - or in the same way - in another context.