Could it be that Europe's Wunderkind is more backward than it looks — at least for women? Germany, now presenting itself as a lone beacon of prosperity in the ailing EU, may have Angela Merkel and a government in which a third of the cabinet is female. Yet, as Britain discovered under Margaret Thatcher, having a woman dominating the political scene doesn't always do much for women in other fields.
Since my last column, I have arrived back in Berlin after spending years in America and England. After a couple of weeks in the streets, meeting-rooms and restaurants that make up Mitte, the sleek central district where art galleries, media and politics meet, I noticed two things. First, there is, as usual, plenty of room for debate in Germany: the opinion pages and culture sections are alive and well. Second, not much comes of it.
Now, this may not be surprising for a country as famous for metaphysics as for Mercedes. Yet the question remains just why the relative absence of women in top positions outside politics has suddenly sparked controversy. It began when the influential news magazine Der Spiegel called for legislation to redress imbalances, with a cover story entitled "Why Germany Needs a Quota for Women — A Manifesto." Then came a book: The Cowardice of Women by Bascha Mika, the former editor-in-chief of Die Tageszeitung (a left-leaning daily which is popular among intellectuals). Rather than being held back by men, Mika argued, women were to themselves to blame for not getting much further in their careers: they often hide behind their roles as mothers, or are too shy or cowardly to break through the glass ceiling. To date, Mika is the only woman to have edited a major German newspaper.
What's the matter with this country, one wonders, as a thirty-something woman? Is German society really still dominated by such rigid gender roles?
To most of my friends, even posing the question seems outdated: it was our mothers and grandmothers who fought for the rights we now enjoy. We can take our liberties as we please. Every big company has someone in charge of equal opportunities and sometimes even mentoring initiatives for women. True, we have to deal with subtler discrimination, less obvious than blatant inequality, but all the trickier to handle. Examples include an elderly colleague calling you "Blondie", or asking when the company started selecting new employees for their looks.