Social policy is the term that is used to describe the various principles, guidelines, legislative provisions and activities that impact human welfare. Social policy has thus been defined as an analysis of societies responses to social need (Lewis, 2013: 1) and has been said to focus on certain aspects of the economy that are concerned with basic human needs. Nevertheless, different societies have developed different ways to meet social policy needs. Whilst some rely primarily upon ideological beliefs within family institutions, others rely on the actions of individuals and governmental activities (Lewis, 2013: 1). Ideology plays an important part in social policy as it is the belief that individuals should behave in a way that is consistent with the goals and expectations of the most dominant in society. There are many different views and opinions that exist in respect of ideology (Kania, 1988: 1), yet it has been considered extremely discriminatory as it only “serves the interests of one segment of a society more than all other segments” (Curra, 2000: 6). One particular group of people therefore benefit more than other groups, which is the case when it comes to gender equality and family policies. (Brown et al; 2010: 9). The nuclear family, which is the traditional family structure that consists of two parents and children, is still being considered the ideal in many cultural, family and social settings. This is so despite the fact that “contemporary families now comprise a diverse range of different family and so-called non family types” (Saggers and Sims, 2009: 173). Although ideals are necessary in helping people to identify right from wrong, too much reliance should not be placed on ideology as this will otherwise result in inequality. A significant amount of the gender bias that currently exists has stemmed from ideology (Bjornskov et al, 2007). This is extremely dangerous and demonstrates how important gender regimes (as policy logics) in welfare states are in integral to equality. For example, in domestic violence cases, women are treated unfavourably on the basis that it was previously deemed acceptable for a man to beat his wife (Brown et al, 2010). This has produced many problems over the years and is still an on-going concern for many countries, which will be identified in this study (Cleiss, 2013). Thus, a comparative, cross-national account of social policy in the field of gender equality and family policies will be considered. This will be done by comparing social policy in Germany and France and demonstrating whether gender equality is attainable.

Gender Equality and Family Policy in Germany and France

The 1970’s new social feminist movement was the first time gender inequality was brought to the public’s attention as domestic violence was previously considered “part of the rough and tumble of marital life” (Herring: 2007; p. 262). This gender bias not only happened in the context of domestic violence but it was also becoming a natural part of everyday life. Males were considered to be breadwinners, whilst females were the homemakers. Because females were considered totally dependent on the male breadwinner, a lack of financial and support existed for women and there was a dire need for social policy changes to be implemented in order to reduce the gender inequality women were being subjected to (Curra, 2000). Feminists believed that this gender inequality was the result of ideology and that gender equality should become a vital part of social policy across all nation states (George and Wilding: 1985; p. 122). Feminism is prevalent within different jurisdictions and has been considered a “diverse collection of social theories, political movements, and moral philosophies and aims to understand the nature of gender inequality and focuses on gender politics, power relations and sexuality” (EKU, 2012: 1). Feminists’ believe that individuals cannot achieve complete freedom so long as inequality continues to persist and that humanity is therefore unattainable. Regardless of this, the gender inequality that exists within family structures is still being recognised as a global issue and is prevalent both in Germany and France. This is partly due to the cultural practices of these societies as cultural relativism is still being used to condone such inequality (Craven, 2005: 3). In addition, as put by Fraser; “existing welfare states are premised on assumptions about gender that increasingly out of phase with many people’s lives and self-understandings” (1994: 591).

It seems as though inadequate social protection is being provided to women in both countries, although France’s social policy regime does appear more favourable to women than Germany’s. This is evidenced by the fact that Germany holds a strong preference for the typical nuclear family ideal and continues to view males as breadwinners and females as homemakers. It is a common belief throughout Germany that women should not work and that they should instead be stay at home mums. This was identified by Peters when he pointed out that; “Men’s stereotypical role in Germany is one of the income – earning breadwinner, who leaves the house for work in the morning and comes back in the evening” (2001: 93). Because of the stereotypical role that is still being employed in Germany, women end up performing two roles. This is because contemporary women no longer stay at home to look after children and instead choose to become income earners. Furthermore, the pay gap between men and women in Germany continues to widen and has been criticised for being much wider than other EU states, including France. The European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding presented the results from the Eurobarometer on Gender Equality in 2010 and concluded that Germany’s figures were getting much worse: “In 2007, the gap was 23 percent; in 2006, 22.7 percent” (European Commission, 2012: 1). In a study conducted by Davis and Robinson, however, it was evidenced that much of the gender bias stems from family policies and the ideals that have been created by society. Hence, it was demonstrated that well-educated males are less supportive of reducing gender inequality: “women with employed husbands are less supportive of efforts to reduce gender inequality than women without a male wage earner” (1991: 72). This prevents women from advancing within society and demonstrates how men are capable of stifling the attainment of gender equality in Germany.

In contrast to the male dominated ideologies that exist Germany, social policies in France do actually appear to be more akin to contemporary society. This has been illustrated by Rodgers who noted that; “France has a more conscious, clearly defined concept of family policy, which finds expression in statutory and voluntary institutions whose primary or even sole purpose is to promote the welfare of the family” (2009: 113). Both parents of the nuclear family are also entitled to various statutory benefits as of right, which signifies how gender equality is better attained in France than it is in Germany (Rogers, 2009: 113). France has a significant amount of support for women and has had an extensive policy in favour of families for a very long time. A wide range of childcare services are provided in France as well as an allowance system that is deemed extremely generous (European Union, 2014: 1). Such support is intended to encourage and assist parents in finding a work life balance and is clearly working given that France has higher fertility and employments rates of women with children compared to the rest of the EU’s member states (European Commission, 2014: 1). It has been said that the high fertility rates in France largely result from the consistent family policy in France as well as the good employment prospects provided to women (Del Boca, 2008: 2). One of the key characteristics of France’s family policy is the monetary benefits, also known as family allowance. The monetary benefits that are provided to families under this system include child benefit, flat-rate allowance, family income supplement, family support allowance, birth/adoption grant, basic allowance, supplement for free choice of working time and free choice of childcare, education allowance, back-to-school allowance, daily parental attendance allowance, family housing allowance and moving allowance (Cleiss, 2013: 1).

In view of the support women are provided with in France, it seems as though Germany’s social policies on gender equality should be strengthened. This is especially so in the labour market where this appears to be amongst the worst of all EU member states. Therefore, not only do women in Germany receive significantly lower pay packets to men but they also receive a lack of support from the government (Curra, 2000). There a widespread misconception in Germany that if family friendly policies are implemented to assist working women, this will lead to them having fewer children, which will decrease the population overall (Giddins and Griffiths, 2006). However, it has been evidenced that “countries with policies that facilitate female employment are those with the highest fertility rates” (OECD, 2008: 15). This resultantly increases the future supply of workers, which inevitably leads to sustained growth (OECD, 2007: 7). Furthermore, the practices being employed in France appear to discredit the view that the population will be decreased if further support is provided to women, as this has not happened here and the fertility rates in Germany are low as a result of the lack of support for working mothers. This is due to the fact that women in Germany are more likely to postpone childbearing in order to enter the workforce, which stifles economic growth in the long term (Hering, 2007). Women are thus said to be “facing difficulties to reconcile family, domestic workload and paid work” (WILPF International, 2013: 1). It has been said that the German government is working on this issue at present and has made great attempts to reinforce child daily care (Fraser, 1994), yet it is arguable whether this is proving effective given the cultural relativism that Germany is submersed with. The generosity of France is illustrative of the support that is given to contemporary families and demonstrates how France’s social family policies are workable in attaining gender equality. Not all agree with this, however, and it has instead been argued that; “although French women receive paid, four-month maternity leaves; tax breaks for having more children; and other family-friendly government subsidies, their country lags behind many other nations in gender equality” (MNT, 2010: 1). This, it has been said, is largely because of outmoded attitudes about the role of women in society (Girling, 2002: 126). Women continue to earn less than men; they are still being viewed as homemakers and also hold few positions of power European Commission, 2013: 10). This is also the case for those women that remain childless (Milj and Okin, 1988), which suggests that although France provides better support to women, gender inequality still persists. Accordingly, women continue to be treated differently to men regardless of what policies are put into practice. It is questionable whether gender equality can ever be fully attained given the attempts that have been made to do so over the years. EU law has made significant attempts to ensure men and women receive equal pay for equal work, though it has been difficult for this to be accomplished. Article 141 of the Treaty of Amsterdam (which amended Article 119 of the Treaty of Rome), obliges member states to ensure that men and women always receive equal pay for equal work, yet it is often difficult to demonstrate that this is not being achieved. This is because the burden of proof is on the applicant to show that, on the balance of probabilities, their comparator is doing work of equal value to theirs or like work, which is considerably difficult (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2010, p. 1). It is therefore clear from these findings that whilst France does provide greater support to women than Germany does, gender inequalities still exist. France’s social policies thereby need to be rectified so that better equality is being attained. The first step would be to close the gender pay gap, yet it remains to be seen whether this would achieve complete equality as the traditional family model will remain prevalent.

Functionalism and path dependency to gender equality and family policies

Functionalist’s are of the view that an individuals’ mental state is determined by the role in which they have been provided with in society. Functionalist’s therefore view gender inequality as being a product of traditional societal ideologies (Saggers et al, 2009). This is reflected by the inequality that currently exists within Germany and France. Hence, the traditional nuclear family is still being given due consideration despite the fact that modern family structures are widely diverse. Because individuals have always been taught what the traditional roles of men and women are, individuals tend to conform to such requirements. This is still happening today, whether consciously or not, and is one of the main reasons why gender equality is difficult to attain. Consequently, whilst women are provided with better support in France than they are in Germany, many of the underlying inequalities women are subjected to remain. This is because societal attitudes towards men and women have remained the same, regardless as to what social policies have been implemented, as is also the case in Germany. Hence, it is apparent that whilst gender roles in both societies have changed substantially, traditional arrangement remains in force (Giddens and Griffiths, 2006: 467). Social policy in France has advanced significantly over the years and is very supportive of women, yet gender inequality is still prevalent because of the traditional arrangement that remains in force. This is also the case in Germany despite the fact that less support is provided to women as some attempts to close the pay gap have been made, yet it seems impossible for gender equality to be obtained.

Path dependency theoretically explains how past decisions influence future ones, regardless as to whether the circumstances are still relevant. It is therefore clear from this theory that history is an important part of the future and shapes the way individuals behave. This theory is reflective of the gender equality and family policy approach that is being adopted in Germany and France. This is because historical viewpoints are being maintained regardless of the fact that the nuclear family is no longer considered the ‘norm’ in contemporary society. As identified by Skocpol; “the development trends of social modernization may face legacies of path dependent cultural and institutional organisation” (1992: 8). This affects the advancement of gender equality and restricts the ability to improve the lives of women. Because the emergence of social policy is determined by past influences, the typical family ideal is likely to remain instilled in society. This prevents the modernisation of social policy, which explains why the traditional family model continues to subsist within social and family policy. Furthermore, as noted by Alexander and Welzel; “path dependent processes with respect to women’s suffrage policy may affect the potential to increase gender equality in particular societies” (2014: 9). This is why women continue to be paid lower than men in Germany and France regardless of the current changes that are being made to achieve equality. This occurs because of the historical gender inequality practices that were being employed because as was pointed out; “because of the path dependence of the unfolding human life, gender inequality in the early eighties might equally affect today’s opportunities, choices and aspiration levels” (Bjornskov et al; 2007: 2). Past discrimination thereby affects the way women are viewed in society today and will continue to have an impact in the future.

Gender equality is still one of the main fundamental principles the EU continually strives for (Article 14 of the European Union’s Convention on Human Rights), yet despite the various policies that have been adopted women are still being treated unfavourably to men. This was recognised by Radacic who argued that; “notwithstanding these pronouncements, inequality of women in the member states of the Council of Europe persists” (Radacic, 2008: 841). The EU has therefore been largely impotent in challenging gender discrimination and achieving gender equality and although women and men are becoming more equal over the years, “a principle of perfect equality” (Mill and Okin, 1988: 1) is still not being established in countries such as Germany and France. Adequate family and childcare policies that allow for gender equality therefore need to be implemented, which could be achieved by employing strategies that; encourage female labour market participation, remove the gender bias ideologies, provide adequate childcare, promote children’s education and well being and allow for flexible labour. It is unlikely that much of the gender bias that is currently in place will be removed, though there will certainly be some improvements. Germany should be more supportive of women and France should make further attempts to close the pay gap.


Overall, traditional ideological practices continue to be adopted in Germany and France when it comes to gender equality and family policy. Because of this, women continue to be treated differently to men. It is questionable whether this can ever be rectified given that gender inequality is viewed as a product of traditional societal ideologies. In Germany, women are given less support than they are in France whose social policies appear to be more akin to contemporary society. In spite of this, however, gender inequality is still prevalent throughout France. This is evidenced by the large gender pay gap and the fact that traditional ideologies are still prevalent across all social policy methods. This illustrates that regardless of what social policies welfare states implement, gender inequality will still persist. Improvements to social policy would still benefit the economy, nonetheless, and would develop gender equality further. In Germany, there is a pressing need for greater support to be provided to women as well as reducing the gender pay gap, whereas in France the main focus is on the latter. It is doubtful that complete equality would be achieved in light of the fact that the traditional family model remains intact, yet vast improvements could certainly be made. This is supported by the views of functionalists who believe that the traditional arrangement of gender roles remain intact despite the fact that these roles have significantly changed in modern societies. Furthermore, because past decisions influence future decisions, as recognised by the path dependency model, the nuclear family structure will always have a place in contemporary society.


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