Klaus Hurrelmann, Professor of Public Health and Education at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, Germany, is convinced that today’s adolescents will bring new ideas about gender roles into the workplace.

Caroline Smrstik Gentner: Results from the 17th German Youth Study (2015) indicate that today’s adolescents are bridging the gender gap. What does this mean?

Klaus Hurrelmann: “Bridging the gap” is a metaphor for combining traditional and modern gender roles, but I wouldn’t say that we’re there yet. In the study, we found huge differences in perspectives among young people. Young women still vividly see their role encompassing the traditional “interior minister”, responsible for the family. But 80% also say that professional life must also fit into their future.

This is not the case when we look at young men. The majority stick to their traditional gender role of being the breadwinner. We see some tendency toward opening up that perspective, but no real desire to change their role.

CSG: University enrollment statistics show young women outnumbering young men, not just in Germany.

KH: The barrier for women used to be at the point of obtaining an education, but we’ve moved on. This generation of women is better educated than men and is well-prepared for a labor market characterized by change, insecurity and upheaval. Our research shows that women seem to cope better with these factors. However, they don’t capitalize on this head start.

CSG: Why not?

KH: The study shows that women are very eager to handle challenges in their lives, to develop their roles further. They want to make it. There are so many positive opportunities to improve women’s role through education, training, an early career. But as soon as women combine their jobs and careers with a family, this ambitious attitude slips.

The next big step in gender equality will be overcoming this barrier. It’s the same barrier as before, just at a different point in life.

CSG: Why aren’t young men ambitious in the same way?

KH: They don’t have to be. It doesn’t pay off for men to be “modern”. They don’t get applause from family and friends for being a househusband. It pays off more for women than for men to break the stereotypes, since they are recognized and admired for having a career and a family. The cost-reward ratio tells young women to push: for young men, it’s not at all clear if this will pay off.

CSG: Why, what do men need to change?

KH: We do not yet have clear positive rewards for men that make them desire changing their role. My guess is that in 10 to 15 years, half a generation, we will see this change.

“We do not yet have clear positive rewards for men that make them desire changing their role.”

Some high-prestige professions are becoming female-dominated. Teaching used to be a male profession, for example, and now men are in the minority. In Germany, 70% of medical students are now women: medicine will become a female profession.

CSG: But aren’t “female” professions lower in prestige and pay? Teaching has already undergone an image change.

KH: This will be a very interesting case in the medical profession. Will Germany prefer to import male doctors from other countries?

So yes, the prestige of a medical career may go down. It is a sad fact—and this has happened in teaching— when career paths are interrupted for pregnancy, wage levels go down.

CSG: Women in Germany having a professional life and a family: will this be the future society?

KH: It’s really hard to give a prognosis, but I think so. Between the ages of 15 and 30 social attitudes are formed for life, and that is what we see happening.

It also depends much on the economic and opportunity situation for both genders. Right now, well-educated young women are very interesting for the occupational world. We need more flexibility from companies, more quality child care—as I said, this is happening more in Germany, but it’s driven by the economic situation. Germany has a very tight labor market now, so there’s a positive opportunity for young women to permanently change their gender role.

CSG: How does this compare to gender role development in other countries?

KH: Germany is a conservative welfare state which has modernized somewhat in the past 20 years. Scandinavia has much more emancipated societies in this respect, especially with the value placed on taking care of a family. Men are more involved without a loss of prestige.

Anglo-Saxon countries, like the UK and US, are interested primarily in having a strong labor market, so female participation in the economy is higher.

“Between the ages of 15 and 30 social attitudes are formed for life.”

The infrastructure of child rearing makes the biggest difference. Germany is making huge strides in the quality and quantity of child care—and the fertility rate is going up in Germany, so I am optimistic.

CSG: So there are some tentative changes beginning in Germany. Is there danger of a backlash?

KH: We always have this danger. It depends on the economic and political constellation. Also: do women really like their new societal position? Consider the effects on emotional relationships. Pairing has changed drastically. As the more educated and economically powerful, men were the ones making the choices. Now they are looking up at women instead of down on them from their pedestals. This has a definite effect on pairing rituals. Men would like to hold on to their status here as well.

CSG: You’ve written a great deal on the relationship between family poverty and poor educational chances in Germany: do you find parallels in other countries?

KH: It’s a worldwide development. In Germany, the correlation between family background and educational achievement is higher than in other countries due to the dominance of parents in their children’s education and socialization in the first ten years of life. Remember, Germany is a conservative welfare state which has had a strict division of labor between the genders. Parents are the most important reference for a child’s first ten years. This puts children in a very different situation when the family has low levels of training and education.

Over the last 15 years, the situation in Germany has improved because of the expansion of public child care for children under the age of three. (editor’s note: state-sponsored “Kindergarten” in Germany begins at the age of three and continues to school entrance.) And the school day now goes to 3:00 p.m., not only until noon. The state model is changing. In the long run, this is levelling the field for children from families with a low level of education.

Going back to gender roles, this is the pattern from which today’s adolescents come: their mothers were responsible for educating and socializing the children for the first ten years. Now there are alternatives, and young women want to take advantage of this.

CSG: Is this evolution of gender roles in Germany sustainable?

KH: Women carrying on with their careers, even after starting a family, is quite a new situation in Germany. The driving factor is economics. With a tight labor market every qualified worker is welcome, so employers make more allowances for keeping women in the labor force. Then there is family economics: more than one income is needed to raise a family now. And finally, the individual motivation and opportunity factors.


Klaus Hurrelmann is Professor of Public Health and Education at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, Germany. He is an internationally recognized expert on adolescent development and socialization. His research in educational, social and health policy helps form comprehensive prevention and intervention strategies for equal opportunities in childhood and adolescence. As a member of the German Interior Ministry’s Council of Experts on Demography, he advises various federal ministries on demographic trends.

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