The state of female empowerment in Germany in 2023: The Raven mother stigma disappears

To coincide with International Women's Day on March 8th, Leaders League got the thoughts of a number of high-flying female lawyers, one computer scientist from Germany and one international professor of law/arbitrator on the state on the challenges of being a woman in the legal world in that country, what has changed for the better and the obstacles that still exist.

Posted mercredi, mars 1er 2023
The state of female empowerment in Germany in 2023: The Raven mother stigma disappears

To coincide with International Women’s Day, Leaders League got the thoughts of a number of high-flying women on the state on the challenges and the obstacles of being a woman in the legal world in that country, and what has changed for the better.

In 1999, as a 35-year-old French woman with 3 young children who had worked full-time in Paris, I relocated to Germany. My first encounter with a recruiter on the other side of the Rhine was a rude awakening: “Really, a working mum with three children is inconceivable, are you going to get divorced?” was his reaction. My aim of joining the workforce was over before it had begun.

In one fell swoop I had come up against a stubborn German stereotype, that of the Raven mother, or Rabenmutter, a woman who abandons her fledglings in their nest, to selfishly pursue a professional career. Back then a woman with young children was expected to stay at home and it was tantamount to a taboo, if she chose otherwise.    .    

Antje Baumann tells me a similar story. When she returned quicker than her colleagues expected after having a baby, she has endured remarks such as “Aren’t you breastfeeding anymore?” and “Do you have financial problems?”

One generation later, I wanted to do some research to see if the Raven Mother stigma had finally flown the coop.  

Quoth the Raven Mother “Nevermore.”

The expression “raven mother” still has the power to send a chill down the spine of any German women over 50. Until recent decades, it was not only socially acceptable, but in fact expected, that a woman should switch to a part-time job once she gets pregnant, or even better, give up all professional activities in order to concentrate on raising her children.

For Antje Baumann, Die Rabenmutter is a uniquely German phenomenon that occupies a prominent place in the national psyche minds and has yet to be fully overcome, as it speaks to a wider issue of women still treated the same as men in the professional arena.

Antje Baumann reminds us of how the generation over 50 has had to struggle with discrimination as they attempted to break through the glass ceiling.

“After the birth of my second child, I found it challenging to match the working hours of my male colleagues, who either did not have children of their own or were not involved in their upbringing. I realized that working considerably over 2,000 billables - back then being the requirement for becoming a partner in an international law firm - is not easily compatible with raising small children. That was when I decided to set up my own business - the best decision of my life!”

Some anecdotes about discrimination… stereotype embodiment

 “A male colleague (lower seniority level) and I had a short conversation with a potential client at a conference. Afterwards, we were both sent emails by the client: My male colleague received a request for cooperation, I was sent an invitation to spend the weekend with him,” recounts Franziska Gräfin Grote.

A colleague once asked Wiebe Reuter to join him on a call with a client because he did not want there to only be male lawyers to be on the call, although her expertise was not required.

Many of the women surveyed say people sometimes still assume you are a secretary or assistant to the man in the meeting because you are a girl.

Katrin Schröder tells us that “During a private dinner, a client mistook me for the secretary of my former boss and praised him for being so progressive as to bring his secretary along to the meal. He seemed to have forgotten that I accounted for about 80% of the billed fees that he had just paid.” 

Many female lawyers in Germany know those who have been mistakenly taken for assistants, asked to serve coffee etc. At a conference some years ago, the only female speaker on a panel was given a cookbook, while her fellow male speakers each got a bottle of wine!

Susan Wegner gave us another anecdote from her time at university: “During my doctoral studies, I worked in the IT department of a hospital. Due to a scarcity of space, a separate apartment was rented for my team. And of course, the obvious happened: when I opened the door for visitors, suppliers, etc. they always assumed I was the assistant.”

Some, when faced with such overt discrimination, chose to take the high road. Katrin Schröder decided that a smile was the best weapon to fight the bias. “During my career, I had to overcome many stereotypes that women quite often have to deal with, I think. I had to convince male colleagues that I am just as capable of making hard decisions as they are. I decided to have a smile on my face and steel in my heart.”

The situation in Germany is somewhat counter-intuitive

Many would see Germany as a progressive country and, like Nordic neighbouring countries, a favourable place for gender-equality, but the gender roles in the legal profession are quite traditional.

For Franziska Gräfin Grote, “it is still more difficult for women in Germany to succeed than, for example in France or in England, where I have also lived for some time. Possibly for historical reasons, the role of the woman and thus the image is more incrusted, e.g. if one takes a maternity leave of less than a year one is regarded as an uncaring mother."

The situation in Germany is not as good as in other European countries for Inka Hanefeld, and half-day childcare doesn’t help. “This goes hand in hand with the fact that the majority of women only work half-time so that a full-time career is watched with scepticism instead of praise.”

Katrin Schröder underlined that “we had a female chancellor for 16 years and very little changed during that time for women because she thought that this issue was unimportant. She probably believed that performance was enough to get ahead. Ironically, I shared her opinion due to my upbringing. I changed my mind only after I reached a point in my career where it was necessary to break the glass ceiling. In this moment my performance was no longer as relevant as expected, my gender was the real issue that I still have to overcome.”

But Leli Krachtis, as half of the questionees under 40, said that “the professional environment for women in Germany is better than in many other European countries.”

To move the needle, women lawyers seem to have an inexhaustible reserve of energy.

Maxi Scherer, 48 years old, told us for example that she has two jobs (Professor of Law at Queen Mary University of London and a Special Counsel at WilmerHale in London), studied in two countries (Germany and France) and was admitted to practice in two jurisdictions (France and England/Wales).

Winds of change: As signals go it was a potent one

In 2021, when new Chancellor Olaf Scholz named his cabinet, it contained eight men and eight women. For the first time, the foreign affairs portfolio was in female hands: Annalena Baerbock, 41, a mother of two and co-president of the Green Party, Die Grünen. Another sign things have changed: Berlin is now led by Franziska Giffey, 43, former Minister for Family Affairs and a mother.

Nina Tholuck’s parental leave is another wonderful testimonial of successful inclusion: “It was clear for my husband and me, that after the birth of our son we both wanted to take parental leave and share this time as equally as possible. We decided that I would start with eight months of parental leave and that my husband would then take over for another seven months. Bevor the birth, people often asked me for how long I would take parental leave. My answer that I planned to return to work full-time after eight months of parental leave was very often met with astonishment and, in particular, with the question of what I would then “do with the child”. The possibility that my husband could take over and in turn take several months of parental leave very often didn't seem to be on their minds.”  Her son was born in November 2021, she returned to work in July 2022, in January 2023 she was appointed partner.

And it’s not just women taking advantage of parental leave. Sigmar Gabriel, the former leader of the Social Democrats, is a case in point: his three months of paternity leave after the birth of his second daughter caused a stir in Berlin.

Wiebe Reuter adds that women like men are now able to cope quite well with unexpected shortfalls in childcare or professional appointments. In addition, they have family and friends who can step in when needed.

Sisters are doing it for themselves

Dorothee Ruckteschler experienced all that when starting in the 80ies.

However, after having been partner in a big law firm for over 20 years, she now benefits from this new climate of female empowerment.

The German market was ready for her to leave her leading commercial law firm and create her own firm, as a woman over 60, she was appreciated because she had experience, she was talkative, calm, relaxed and extremely competent. A perfect fit, for her ability to help parties build new bridges, overcome cultural misunderstandings and maintain ongoing business relationships whenever possible, because she had the expertise, and because she was a woman.

Laura de Leeuw confesses that “I could not think of an interesting and amusing incident that happened to me that could not have happened to a man.”

Women must not hesitate to use their strengths as women in the world of work, as men would do, according to Jennifer Bryant, even though she can tell one anecdote relating to her being a woman that men may not be able to tell the same way. “I am a firm believer that everyone can do everything - irrespective of their gender. That being said: When I was a senior associate, I put on a dance at a big meeting of the firm, one symbolizing one of our core values which is “passion for what we do”. So, I asked one of the partners who I knew well if he would perform the dance with me so I would not be entirely on my own.

I choreographed a mix of tango, waltz and disco, with an underlying funny story, which made me very well known throughout the entire firm.

For about a year afterwards, I was always greeted as “oh, the tango dancer” whenever I visited another office. So eventually, I do think this tango dancing helped with internal visibility and getting my name (and face) out there.”

Networking to fight gender inequality

Women, like men, regularly take part in networking events designed to mutually support of fe­male lawyers and make their expertise more visible.

For Laura de Leeuw, gender equality in the workplace has become an ever more important issue because women are more vocal, organised and represented. The more women break through the glass ceiling, the more prominent the topic of gender equality becomes.

Leli Krachtis and Susanne Ascher confess that “unfortunately, gender inequality is still omnipresent. All the more, we try to take advantage of every opportunity to network and exchange with other women in our profession so we can support each other.”

Part of the responsibility of Laura de Leeuw is to coordinate Gleiss Lutz’ internal Dispute Resolution Training program, and work on improving the firm’s pro bono concept. She is an active member of the regional DIS40 group (the Young Lawyers organisation of the German Arbitration Institute (DIS)).

Together with her colleague Leli Krachtis, Susanne Ascher initiated “Frauen mit Format”, a format which aims to showcase inspiring, successful, and authentic women to encourage other women, particularly younger ones, to achieve their goals while staying true to themselves in an often male-domi­nated field, especially in top positions. "Dr. Antje Baumann – a leading German lawyer and one of the women named in this article – was our first guest."

The growing importance of diversity

Susan Wegner explains that countless studies (e.g. Forbes 2019 “How diverse teams produce better outcomes”) have shown that diverse teams perform much better, essentially because of a broader team horizon and which generates, among other things, more new ideas and leads to better decisions. Especially with regard to AI solutions, biases are a huge issue and we have already had some bad product examples (e.g. the biased AI in hiring).

In addition to processes and technical measures, a diverse team is better able to anticipate, review, and identify biases not only in AI solutions; it also elevates the overall business output.

Germany is a paradise for shorter working hours

Jennifer Bryant thinks in general, standards in Europe are comparable. “While Germany has one of the most advanced maternity leave-systems to my understanding, society may still put a bit too much pressure on working mothers. “Don’t start again too early”, “Work only part-time” - when I talk to colleagues from other countries, I have the impression that working full-time as a mother is more normal and just not so much the focus of public debates because there is simply no other choice. That may take away pressure and a great deal of mom guilt.”

A 2011 law allows employees in Germany to demand a reduction in their working hours. Another law, adopted eight years later, guarantees them a return to full-time work when they wish. As a result, almost one in two women work part-time.

For Wiebe Reuter, “the professional environment for women is good in many business areas in Germany. But there is definitely room for improvement. I worked in Denmark for three months and, working hours there are tailored to the needs of families.”

The East-West disparity remains

Families are better off in the former GDR, where 52% of young children have access to childcare, compared with 31% in the former FRG and only 29% in industrial North Rhine-Westphalia. "In the East, the brain drain that preceded the building of the wall in 1961 left women with no choice but to work," said Martina Koch, 55, a partner in the Frankfurt-based consultancy EY, who grew up in East Berlin.

I will give the final word to Elisabeth S. Wyrembek, who insists that gender equality in the workplace is becoming a reality for the under 40s in Germany “because it was about time".

"While I don’t have children, my husband’s work requires us to live in a different country every three to four years. At the moment I live on two different continents, with roundabout 28 hours of travel in between. I believe in transparent communication with my colleagues, partners and clients. I prioritise when necessary. However, it is fair to say flexibility is my superpower.”

Thank you to the inspirational women, who featured in this article:

  • Susanne Ascher, Wach und Meckes, München
  • Antje Baumann, BAUMANN Resolving Disputes, Hamburg
  • Jennifer Bryant, Noerr, Düsseldorf
  • Laura de Leeuw, Gleiss Lutz, Düsseldorf
  • Franziska Gräfin Grote, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, Düsseldorf
  • Inka Hanefeld, Hanefeld, Hamburg and Paris
  • Leli Krachtis, Wach und Meckes, München
  • Wiebke Reuter, Taylor Wessing, Berlin
  • Dorothee Ruckteschler, Dorothee Ruckteshler Dispute Resolution, Stuttgart
  • Maxi Scherer, WilmerHale/Queen University of London
  • Katrin Schröder, BCLP, Frankfurt
  • Nina Tholuck, Schramm Meyer Kuhnke, Hamburg
  • Susan Wegner, Deloitte Digital, Berlin
  • Elisabeth S. Wyrembek, Haver & Mailänder, Stuttgart


Sophie Stevenard