Despite the increasing prominence of female politicians and a strong history of women’s rights, sexism in Germany appears to be alive and well.
Germany may have two million more women than men, but that does not mean they have things all their own way.
In fact, Germany seems to have a rather contradictory reputation regarding the position of women. On the one hand, German women have rights and receive benefits that are the envy of many other countries, but Germany still has surprisingly low figures for female participation in the job market and especially in management. In 2003, only 58% of women were in employment compared to 63% in America and 70% in Britain. And only 33% of managerial positions are held by female employees.
East is best
It is perhaps no coincidence that Angela Merkel comes from former Communist East Germany. East German states do considerably better than their more prosperous West German counterparts in terms of women’s positions.
It seems the Communist policy of making women work and providing childcare facilities throughout the country is still having an effect today. Some 29% of those in leading positions in the old GDR are female compared to only 20% in Western Germany. This low rate is especially clear in places like Bavaria, where the Catholic Church and Christian Democrats have effectively promoted family values.
A source of frustration
Expatriates tend to be male more often than female, but there are still over 100,000 female English speakers in Germany. Sexist attitudes (among both women and men) are a source of frustration for many of them.
One expatriate woman annoyed by the role of women in Germany is Cheryl Martinez, an American who runs the Phaze Two design company and who campaigns against sexist advertising. “The situation is less than rosy,” she says. “There is a real backlash against feminism here.”
Discrimination against mothers
One female expat who preferred not to be named feels that discrimination against women really kicks in when they have children. “People’s attitudes to working mothers are terrible,” she says.
“When I first returned to work after the birth of my child I was constantly asked where my poor child was – women were as bad as men.” She feels that she has been passed over at work because she decided to have a child. “I never witnessed such behavior [in my home country]. I get very angry about all this.”
Holding themselves back
American Judy Sorkalla argues that women are in part held back by their own attitudes. “They don’t believe enough in themselves, as they’re raised to become housewives,” she says.
Similarly, Claudine Gillon-Marshall, a French expat married to an American with many years of experience living in the US and Germany, thinks that American women are a lot more independent than their European counterparts.
“When I came back to Europe after ten years I was looked at strangely because I was standing up for myself,” she says. “It is not just men that are uncomfortable with me, some women think it is not proper for a woman to be so strong. In the US, I never had this problem.”
A hidden attitude
Michelle Miller is an American lawyer who has been in Germany for five years. She believes that complacency is one obstacle to changing things. “It is problematic that sexism remains largely a hidden attitude in Germany,” she argues.
“Until the EU forced the matter, there was no specific law in Germany addressing job discrimination based on sex – or race, for that matter. Many German lawyers voice the opinion that Germany doesn’t need a law like we have in the US because there is no sexism or racism in the German workplace. If only that were true.”
That is not to say that the German system does not have real strengths for women. Mary Brunowsky, President of the American Women’s Club of Cologne, speaks for many expatriate women when she says that “the number of holidays and vacation days” is a big advantage over work in America, particularly for those with children.
Aine Shiel from Ireland has experience working in opera houses in Bayreuth in Germany and in London and can see other advantages for women in Germany. “The working week is shorter and the cost of living is lower, so it’s probably easier to get a balance between work and home life. Public transport is better and less stressful in Germany, all of which helps.”
In comparison with America in particular, the German system for maternity leave is very generous. Women normally receive six weeks’ paid leave before birth and eight weeks afterward. Either parent is then allowed up to three years’ unpaid leave to look after children.
However, some have argued that Germany’s maternity-leave system and the tax breaks for families are counterproductive. “When a company has a choice to hire a female or male, both 30, for the same job, they will invariably hire the male,” argues Mary Brunowsky.
“The law lets a woman have maternity leave and that leaves the company holding the position for three years. A company cannot be sure if the women will suddenly decide to have a baby.”
However, some countries, especially those in Scandinavia, manage to have both maternity benefits that are more substantial than in Germany as well as higher birth rates and more female participation in the workforce and in management than Germany or America. Perhaps solutions such as cuts in maternity leave might be less effective than overdue shifts in cultural attitudes.
A vital issue
With the country facing steadily declining birth rates, the question of how women can combine children and a career is no longer just a matter of equal rights – it has become a vital issue for the future prospects of the country as a whole. One positive aspect of the demographic crisis might turn out to be a real change in attitudes towards women at work.
In the meantime, Aine Shiel is skeptical if Angela Merkel’s rise to power will make much of a difference to these problems facing women in Germany. “I think the Germans still see things in quite conservative ways – they’re not so good at thinking outside the box,” she says.
“I daresay that makes things harder for women. And one woman at the top probably won’t change that.”
See Expatica’s list of expat groups in Germany for information on international women’s organizations in Germany.