What a Way to Make a Living: Katri Bertram and Stephan Höyng on Gender and Labour

In April 2017, the Hertie School’s Gender Equality and Sexuality Club held its first “Cracking the Ceiling” Gender and Labour Conference. Governance Post editors Isabela Vera, Lisa Gow and Sara Cooper talked to two speakers from the panel, Katri Bertram, Hertie alumnus and Head of Advocacy and Policy at the Save the Children Germany, and Dr. Stephan Höyng, Professor of Social Work at the Catholic University of Applied Sciences in Berlin, about contemporary gender challenges in Western workplaces.

TGP: Policies to promote equality in the workplace risk becoming quite binary, focusing on just men and women. Are there ways that policies can promote the interests of non-binary genders, such as transgender people?

KB: In Germany, there is now a legal definition of gender that is neither male nor female. However, the way this is interpreted within companies can be problematic. If you take the case of recruitment, when companies try to find gender balance in their teams, the focus is mostly on women and men. I don’t think human resources departments in most companies are aware that there should be some other component.

SH: This new legal definition of gender is still a very recent change, so it’s too early to tell how German companies will work with this. There are companies that are open for sexual diversity, but I think it’s not often seen. In the workplace, there will be problems for people who do not really fit in, such as intersex people. It isn’t easy for them, as they don’t conform to societal expectations about men and women. And it’s not easy to tackle this kind of discrimination, because it’s rather informal.

TGP: How can women respond when expected to perform “emotional labour” in the workplace – based on the commonly held assumption that they are good at fostering harmony in the office?

SH: [In Germany] this expectation was much stronger 25 years ago, during the first wave of women entering the labour market. “Women are for peace and men are for war”, etc. Until a particular group constitutes at least 30% of the staff in an organisation, individuals belonging to that group are treated as being symbolic of their group. It’s the same for men, who are expected to provide a “male position” whenever they are underrepresented in a particular occupation. This is problematic and doesn’t work. For men working in kindergartens, they must show that they are not only there to play rough games, repair things, or work with wood – things that tend to be expected of men.

KB: I think it depends on the sector and the context. For example, in a private company with harsh elbowing tactics, the women who come in, usually through a process of self-selection, will often be equally tough, because that’s how to survive. By contrast, if you look at something like the female-dominated NGO sector, men are in the minority, but, also through self-selection, they usually won’t be the McKinsey power drivers. To the question of how to respond if you are confronted with this expectation, just ignore it! Do what you need to do and be who you are.

In the early 2000s, I started working in a research institution in Germany after graduating from my first degree. It was a really traditional environment with a lot of older men doing the research and women doing the assistant jobs. I went in with a very good degree and started as a researcher. I was expected to make coffee, “because that’s what women do here”. I looked my superior directly in the eye and said “No, I’m not here to make coffee. It’s not part of my role and it’s not something I want to do. I’m happy to make coffee if you make coffee with me”. I think everyone needs to feel empowered and take that risk. This also goes for men working in female-dominated environments like kindergartens.

TGP: After we graduate, some of us, no matter how many degrees or how much work experience we have, might be asked in our first job to make coffee. Do you think the Hertie School has a role to educate not just women, but also men, about how issues like this should be dealt with?

KB: I’m not sure how the MPP has evolved since I was there, but it would be useful to include some training, for example, on what daily situations can look like in a job. What are the things that might come out of the blue and throw you off? I think it has to take place in a broader environment where everyone is involved, because these situations are not just gendered issues. Saying no is important for any position in the workplace. If that isn’t happening here, then it should be. Like you said, you expect to go out and make decisions and write smart stuff, but then again, you might be expected to stand at a coffee machine. I think it’s a good idea to discuss what to do in these situations, think about the alternatives and the risks. In some situations, it may be a very smart move to make that coffee or do that copying. There is no one way of doing it correctly.

TGP: In the UK, there has been talk of “menstrual leave” – some companies are offering women one day off per month if they have cramps or aren’t feeling well. This has been controversial. What are your views on the use of differentiated policies as a pathway to equality?

SH: Employers have to support people if they have a problem. There may be women who have very bad menstrual cramps every month, but others don’t. Maybe it’s not right to treat all women as one homogeneous group. I think there are other ways. You could get a certificate from your doctor which shows that you have this problem. It seems to me that giving all women a day off makes a big drama of the problem. Sometimes we have to “de-dramatise” an issue for the sake of equality. What we dramatised twenty-five years ago may not need to be dramatised today.

KB: I think there are two different angles to this. One would be to have some sort of legal protection or policy tool for such women. However, you would have other people asking “What about me with my knee problems?” etc. Therefore, I think you need legal protection that gives a certain amount of flexibility, no matter what the issue is. There must be a right for everyone to take one day off, or work from home, for example. Otherwise, I think it might backfire.

And then, I think another angle is the policy side – how do you actually implement something like that, as an organisation or a company? It’s better to offer flexibility to all groups – every person has an issue for which they need some flexibility. It’s the same for parental leave, or caring for a sick child or an elderly relative. I always say to those in my team, if they are politically active and there’s an event that they absolutely have to attend, this is equally important to a situation in which someone has to accompany their child on a two-day trip.

TGP: In the panel discussion, we talked about the difference between women and labour issues, on the one hand, and family and maternity issues. Do we have a duty to differentiate between these two, and is one more amenable to policy measures, such as family leave, while the other is more societal?

KB: That is a huge question. I think someone on the panel said that currently, most women between the ages of twenty to thirty-five or forty are seen as being in the reproductive age, so it doesn’t make much difference whether you define something as a gender policy or parenting policy. Recruiters will think of such a person as a possible mother, so I think in that way, you can always mix up any female, gender-related policy as family policy as well. The other way around is tricky, because I think family policy is so much broader, it involves so many different factors.

SH: Family policy is about combining family and labour. I usually don’t speak of combining work and family, but work and private life. The State’s interest is to combine work and family, because they want us to have children. That is an important question here in Germany. My point is different – it doesn’t matter whether I need to leave the office because my child is sick, or I have a political engagement, or I’m going paragliding. Some people don’t live in families and we need to include them. My ideal would be to work full-time, but with a shorter working week. It would make the process of enabling parents to care for family members less of a big deal. But at present, they are singled out and treated as special by every law. It’s the same with maternity. If there was a working week of thirty or thirty-two hours for all, no one would need to know what I do outside my job and it would be compatible with my outside interests and responsibilities.

KB: I disagree about the need to have a thirty-two hour week. I think the key is providing flexibility during necessary periods of time, which may be a day, year or even a decade. I think that’s more important than having certain working hours. In my case, I have a family, but I try to have a private life outside of my family life too. I work around fifty to fifty-five hours per week, but in a way that allows me to combine my family with my work. I do work core hours, but I also work in the evenings when the children are in bed. That’s my choice, and I would feel very restricted if I had to reduce my hours to 32 per week. For some private sector companies, this wouldn’t be a viable option either. So, for me, flexibility and the trust that you can leave the office for three hours in the afternoon is more important.

TGP: Katri, your organisation works in 120 countries. Across countries and sectors, are there different issues facing women in the workforce, other than the wage gap, or maternity policy?

KB: I think we’re doing a lot of elite discussion here. There are certain issues that are not even in debate in other countries and contexts, because of different financial, legal, cultural and human rights norms. But I think that gender is a key factor in policy; it’s one of the drivers in development and economic growth. It is a huge factor that can lead to big positive change.

TGP: In the panel discussion, we talked a lot about flexible working practices (such as home office working). It seems that these will become more common in the future, especially as a way to facilitate greater female labour force participation, and because technology makes it easier to work remotely. Are there any drawbacks to working practices that blur the boundaries between work and private life?

KB: This is a really important question. In Berlin, you see a lot of parents pushing buggies in the park with children, holding their smartphones and doing work at the same time. It’s a massive double-edged sword. But what would be the alternative to this flexibility? Would it mean that mothers have to sit in the office and work from there? It’s an amazing luxury to have that option of flexibility, but the employer must not make you feel that you have to be available all the time. Parents also need to make a conscious choice to separate those two areas. My husband and I constantly struggle with saying “No, this is our family time and this is the time that we don’t have to check emergency e-mails from work”. It has a big impact on the quality of family life and the children are the first ones to notice. My youngest daughter hates nothing more than when I try to check my phone secretly while I’m playing with her. As an individual, it’s important to make a conscious choice and say “No, this is not work time”. For everyone’s personal sanity, and for the sake of preventing burnout, we need to differentiate between these two much more clearly.

SH: When I left secondary school, some of my contemporaries started working in the traditional 8 a.m to 4 p.m. routine. At 4 p.m., they were out of the door immediately. These times are gone. Now, we are under pressure to remain self-motivated. Forty years ago, the conflict was happening between yourself and demands from the outside, or your employer. Now, the conflict happens within you. You have to be very strong and learn how to set your own boundaries. Studying, or writing a doctoral thesis, is one way to learn this. Learning how to stop yourself from working is very important. But wanting to do everything perfectly is unhelpful.

Katri Bertram is Head of Advocacy and Policy at Save the Children Germany, and co-chair of Save the Children’s Global Policy, Advocacy and Campaign Group. She holds Masters Degrees from the London School of Economics and Political Science (International Relations) and the Hertie School of Governance (Public Policy). The views expressed in this interview are Katri’s personal views and not those of her employer.

Dr. Stephan Höyng is Professor for Social Work with Boys and Men at the Catholic University of Applied Social Sciences Berlin, Germany, and Director of the Institute for Gender and Diversity in Social Practice Research. His current research focuses on masculinities in relation to employment and care, on men and employment equality, and on men in child care centres. He is also a board member of the German Federal Forum for Men, an association for boys, husbands and fathers.