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Defense minister and mother to seven, Ursula von der Leyen, shares some hard-won wisdom

“Women are not better, just different. If society is smart it will harness diversity and become resilient, pro-active, confident about taking risks.”

Germany’s first female Defense Minister, Dr. Ursula von der Leyen, a medical doctor, powerful warrior for women’s rights — and parent to seven children — is often described as the “mother of all multi taskers”.

Last night in London however, she had some firm words of wisdom for fellow working mothers the world over: “Let go a little,” she told the Women in the World Summit.

“Don’t try to turn him [the father] into a second class mum. He is a first class dad”.

A graduate of Hanover Medical School, von der Leyen began her career working with women in a local gynecological clinic and married fellow medico, Heiko von der Leyen. While in their early 30s, the couple moved to California, to Stanford University where he took on a teaching fellowship.

Von der Leyen had the first of her three children in the United States but remembered that she suffered great guilt and a “bad conscience” about being a working mother.

“There was — and still is — a long tradition in Germany that if you have a good education, you have access to any job you want – except when you have a child. Then you stay at home. That was the tradition in Germany, that a working woman was a bad thing for a child and much guilt was poured on women,” she said.

In California however, she realized that colleagues around her had support from their partners and simply continued to work happily, juggling parenthood with flourishing careers.

“This was such an eye opener. You realize if you have support you can grow and do things you never even dreamed of. So by the time I came back to Germany I had five children…” she said to a wave of laughter.

“I decided then that never, ever would I have a bad conscience again. I took the attitude that nobody would do that to me.”

Von der Leyen recalled that once she moved from medicine to politics, one of her goals as Labour Minister became to reform the nation’s parental leave laws. Paid leave for dads, however — two months at the end of the 12 offered to mothers — would only be offered on a “take it or leave it” basis: “We said you can’t switch it to mothers. Now we have a generation of good fathers who know they can’t be replaced and don’t want to be a second round father,” she said.

“And now we have both sides, mothers and fathers, knowing that life is nice with a newborn but it is tough too, and we don’t have the blaming game between them.”

Von der Leyen told Women in the World’s Tina Brown that she didn’t really believe in “toxic testosterone,” nor did she support the argument that there would be less global dysfunction if more women were in political leadership. Rather, she described herself as a believer in diversity and argued the need for a mixture of thinkers and leaders: “Women are not better, just different. If society is smart it will harness diversity and become resilient, pro-active, confident about taking risks.”

Von Der Leyen recalled that as Labor Minister, one of her first goals was to overturn the German culture of the so-called “raven mother,” a historical term of disapproval for working mothers. However she realized early on that this meant harnessing support from men: “I think what is necessary is to get these modern men as your allies if you fight for women’s rights.”

Remembering the “storm” of opposition from middle-aged men who wanted to “dump” her in the early days of the debate for reforms to parental leave, Dr von der Leyen pointed out that it was a male colleague, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, who helped her the most.

“He sat there in his wheelchair and said ‘Look, my daughter is a lawyer and she wants children. How can she do this?’ Suddenly, I realized how much power you have if you also have one strong man at your side to help change the other men.”

Brown observed that von der Leyen must herself have had a strong and “wonderful partner” to have managed to combine bringing up seven children with her medical and political careers.

However the Minister wasn’t going to accept this: “For the first 15 years, he made a career and mine shrunk and shrunk and then at the end, I was a part-time working mother with children, he was a Professor of Medicine,” she said with a smile. “And then, I was a Minister and I had no time and he had to take his duties as a father more seriously because I couldn’t write notes every day to show him what to do. I didn’t have time!”

Looking back, she said, her move to politics was the best thing that could have happened to her husband because all of a sudden, he saw how important his own position as a father was. “He saw how indispensable he was. And I had to learn to let go as an over controller. It is 15 years later now and my experience says that is what you need: the father has his own role, the mother hers and you do a good job if both have freedom to see how they can be parents. Just don’t try to turn him into second hand mum,” she said to a vocal cheer.

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