Germany

Women Who Rule The World Still Asked "Why Are You Childless?"

British Prime Minister Theresa May is just the latest female world leader who's not a mother. A hard look at a gender double standard that reaches all the way to the top.

Merkel and May in Berlin in July
Merkel and May in Berlin in July
Stefanie Bolzen, Sabine Menkens and Peter Praschl

BERLIN — The two most powerful women of the United Kingdom stood in front of the Bute House in Edinburgh, shaking hands — Theresa May, the new British prime minister and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. "Politics aside — I hope girls everywhere look at this photograph and believe nothing should be off limits for them," Sturgeon wrote on Twitter shortly after the summit. Her message was retweeted more than 30,000 times.

Both Sturgeon and May made it to the top in politics, but that's not the only thing they have in common. Neither leader has any children. And they aren't the only female leaders who aren't mothers — German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and South Korea's President Park Geun-hye also don't have children. But even as there's increasing acceptance of different lifestyles, these women are forced to justify their choices in spite of, or maybe because of, their success.

In an interview in July, May spoke of the grief she and her husband endured for never having had children. "Sometimes things you wish had happened don't, or there are things you wish you'd been able to do, but can't," the 59-year-old conservative explained.

Sturgeon, 46, was also recently asked why she doesn't have children. The Scottish leader told a Sunday Times journalist, whom she is close to, of the miscarriage she suffered six years ago. The article featured a photomontage of six female politicians without children, and was criticized for the way it portrayed female leaders.

Mandy Rhodes, the journalist who interviewed Sturgeon, says that she was thinking of both their positions as role models. "As Scotland's first minister she knows that there are some young girls who look up to her and think that, as a woman, they will have to make sacrifices if they want to climb the career ladder. Which is why she wanted to make clear that a life without children was not a conscious choice for her."

Ambition and gender

Maybe Sturgeon and May are sick of having to answer for why they never had children, while male politicians rarely have to publicly explain such a decision. Both women are considered ambitious and powerful. While male politicians with these traits are lauded as strategic thinkers, women politicians need to display feelings of motherly affection, at least every now and then, if they don't want their career to be adversely affected. And at some point, female politicians without children are made to declare their grief about not becoming a mother.

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South Korean President Park Geun-hye during a Children's Day event in 2013 — Photo: Korean Culture Information Service

For the previous generation of women in Germany, the option of working and being a mother was barely existent because of the way society used to think and because the educational infrastructure in the former West Germany was lacking. Now, the growing number of kindergartens and longer school hours help meet the needs of working mothers. Still, these working women face serious hurdles.

In a study by the Berlin Social Science Centre, an organization known by the German acronym WZB, 95% of mothers and 93% of fathers agreed with the statement "children are important to me." But only 82% of mothers would pass on this point of view to the next generation, that is, their own children.

The survey, published in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, found that women, particularly those with academic degrees, occasionally regret their decision to have children, especially since achieving a work-life balance for women remains largely elusive. In some cases, this is at least partly due to fathers contributing less in bringing up children as they promised they would.

Of German women aged 40-44, some one-fifth don't have children, and this percentage is even higher among female academics. These women often feel trapped by the question of motherhood. They are relentlessly asked the inappropriate question of when they will have children. If they choose not to become mothers, they are deemed career obsessed and devoid of emotion, almost as if women have a holy duty to procreate.

According to a 2011 study conducted by the Hanns Seidel Trust, which has close ties to the Christian Social Union party in Bavaria, nearly one-third of all Members of Parliament do not have children, including 35% of women and 30% of men. Male MPs with children had an average of 1.63 children whereas female MPs only had 1.22 children. The reason for this discrepancy is that the wives of male politicians, who were either working part-time or not at all, looked after the family at home. Meanwhile, the husbands of female parliamentarians generally did not take care of the children while Mama was sitting in parliament.

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