Discrimination in the workplace – Sandra Runge, an attorney based in Berlin, and Karline Wenzel, a communications consultant based in Munich, have both encountered it. The reason: They’re parents. In early 2021, Sandra and Karline determined that things had to change, and together they founded the #proparents initiative, which is also supported by Wildling founder Anna Yona. The objective of #proparents is both to initiate a public dialogue on the topic of discrimination against parents, as well as to include parenthood among the grounds for discrimination in the General Equal Treatment Act (AGG).
To accomplish this, they recently joined forces with the magazines Brigitte and Eltern to launch the petition #gleichesRechtfürEltern, which seeks to rally 50,000 votes by May 31, 2021.
To find out even more about their initiative, their everyday lives as parents, and their plans for the future, Team Wildling asked Sandra and Karline a few probing questions:
Tell us a little bit about who you are. Can you encapsulate in three sentences what #proparents is all about?
Sandra: My name is Sandra Runge, I’m an attorney from Berlin, a specialist in labor law, and a mother of two sons. Earlier this year, I co-founded #proparents with Karline Wenzel. We have the support of a lot of terrific people who are working to make the workplace more equitable for parents.
Karline: Through #proparents, we are calling for the inclusion of “parenthood” as grounds for discrimination in Section 1 of the General Equal Treatment Act (AGG). A provision to this effect in the AGG would cover all working parents, irrespective of marital status and gender: mothers, fathers, regardless of whether they are single parents or in a same-sex partnership – from ‘mini-jobbers’ to CEOs. With a well-defined legal framework, they would all be protected from discrimination, they could claim damages, and they could invoke a reversal of the burden of proof in the event of discrimination.
#proparents founders Karline und Sandra (images: #proparents/ Manu Wolf)
Was there an "Aha!" moment or was it more of an "Oh no!" moment that inspired you to launch the #proparents initiative?
Sandra: I’ve been tackling the issue of parents in the workforce for the past ten years, both in my capacity as a lawyer and also on my blog www.smart-mama.de. After my first parental leave I was shown the door in a rather ungentlemanly manner myself. As a result, I started working for myself, and over the course of the last few years I have advised a great many clients who had been discriminated against at work. At some point I realized these cases involve far more than personal circumstances that are challenging on an individual level. In fact, it is systematic discrimination against parents in the workplace. And I think it’s time that we talk about it.
Karline: Yes, that’s the elephant in the room that no one dares to mention. I didn’t fully realize the extent of it until a year ago, in the early days of the coronavirus crisis. Disappointed by the lack of attention given to the needs and everyday challenges of families on the part of policymakers, I teamed up with some other mothers to form the “Eltern in der Krise” (parents in crisis) initiative. It was through that work that I first got to know Sandra, and I was immediately drawn to the idea of advocating for legal protections for parents.
What other difficulties do parents face in their day-to-day professional lives? Have you experienced this kind of thing yourselves?
Karline: Parents are at a disadvantage on the job – this is something we both witness nearly every day in the settings we work in. And yet there are close to 20 million parents in Germany who are paving the way for society, the state, and the economy to continue to develop and function in the long term. Of these parents, 80% are employed and generate a significant percentage of the gross domestic product and the tax revenue. We believe that this supporting role isn’t being given the recognition it deserves.
Sandra: …nor is it reflected in the current legal framework. Dismissals on the first day back from parental leave, receiving a lower salary or not being offered a job of equal value when returning to work, disparaging remarks from superiors when employees are absent because their child is ill – far from being uncommon, these situations are an everyday reality. The Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency (ADS) is also experiencing an increase in requests for counseling as well as complaints based on discrimination during pregnancy and parental leave.
Image: Alberto Ferrero
What is your superpower, and how does it help you in your daily lives as parents?
Sandra: Yes, we ask ourselves that too (laughing)... The work we do for #proparents is done on a completely voluntary basis, without remuneration of any kind, and on top of our jobs and families. I think what drives us both is the desire to make a difference. The idea of sending our children out into a world of work that is more equitable than what many of us are experiencing motivates us enormously.
Karline: Yes! And besides that, we make an amazing team. We’re a good match, we have a similar vision and shared values, we communicate with total openness, and we don’t waste energy on pointless sideshows. And we laugh together a lot... maybe that’s our true superpower (both laugh).
Why do you think parenthood is still a source of discrimination in this day and age (or maybe even especially so today)?
Karline: I think it’s fairly complicated. For one thing, it’s certainly true that entrenched stereotypes and expectations on parents are not easily changed. And by that I mean not only the expectations that are placed on parents externally, but also the expectations that parents place on themselves and on each other. Secondly, in many parts of business, society, and even politics, there is still a certain skepticism surrounding diverse perspectives and heterogeneous teams. This is gradually changing. But only when people everywhere really see the benefits of illuminating issues and problems from a variety of perspectives will we see a lasting change.
Why should people who aren’t parents become involved with ProParents?
Sandra: All of us have to realize that discrimination against parents has broad ramifications for everyone in this country. Families are the pillars of our society and children the foundation of our future.
If people decide against having children because they feel they can’t afford to take time off work again, then yes, whether we’re parents or not, we all have to ask ourselves: Ten years from now, who will be buying the products made by the companies that were supposed to make work-life compatibility possible today? Who will wait on us at a restaurant in 30 years, and who will take care of us in 50 years? Not to mention the question of who will pay into the pension funds.
Besides signing this petition, how can people support your cause? Is there something we can all do on a small scale?
Sandra: Right now our goal is to collect 50,000 signatures, so it would be fantastic if everyone reading this would sign our petition and share the link with others in their social networks and chat groups. In addition, we not only want to change the law, we also want to stimulate a conversation about the disadvantages parents face on the job. Anyone and everyone who is talking about our issue in their private lives or at work is helping us. And of course we always want to know what you have encountered personally, both negative experiences as well as situations where things have gone really well. So please, follow our social media channels, share your experience with us – every email helps!
What are your plans following the petition? What can we look forward to seeing? Where do you still need some support?
Karline: Talk about what we’re doing, share your experiences, network with people who are also looking to make a difference. That would be awesome. After all, we intend to engage more intensively with policymakers over the course of the year so that we can really anchor our concerns in the political arena. And we want to hear from businesses as to how they are preventing discrimination against parents in the workplace. We are convinced that sometimes it’s the little things that make an incredible difference. And you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to do it.
Sandra and Karline, thank you so much for this fascinating interview!
If you would like to get involved and support #proparents, you’ll find all the information about the initiative on the website. Do you have a personal story from your daily work life – either positive or negative – that you would like to share? It’s as simple as sending an email to email@example.com.
Cover image: @_wildundwunderbar_