No Wunder, Women

‘Every woman among male egos knows she has to fight a war—an older colleague calling you “Blondie”, for instance’

European Eye Gender Germany

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To most of my friends, even posing the question seems outdated: it was our mothers and grandmothers who fought for the rights we now enjoy.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.

 Does Germany need to introduce a quota for women? Oddly enough, Chancellor Merkel doesn’t think so. Herself in her late fifties and childless, she suggested it should be left to companies to address the matter. Her attitude may have to do with the fact that she grew up in communist East Germany, where gender equality was more widespread, at least in the lower and middle echelons of the hierarchy, than in the West.

 In any case, Mrs Merkel is not interested in rectifying the sparse representation of women at a senior level, despite the revelation in a recent study that the proportion of female members on executive boards is just 3.2 per cent. Even her own party and cabinet are divided. Family Affairs Minister Kristina Schröder, who at 33 is one of the youngest ministers and is the first German woman ever to be pregnant while in office, took Mrs Merkel’s side. But Ursula von der Leyen, Minister for Labour, a mother of seven, did support a quota, arguing that German industry had failed to deliver since voluntary measures were introduced a decade ago. The debate descended into farce when one of Germany’s most prominent businessmen, Deutsche Bank’s Josef Ackermann, rejected the idea of quotas, but made the Berlusconi-like proposition that more women should be appointed to top roles because this would make companies “more beautiful”. 

Commentators were quick to suggest that the dearth of women executives was not only due to a lack of subsidised childcare, but to a culture which has traditionally idealised the caring mother and Hausfrau rather than the tough businesswoman. 

To me the whole debate seems hopelessly outdated and stale — not only the roles themselves, but even their discussion. For it is obvious that women must face up to the often uncomfortable task of challenging stereotypes. Every woman in a field dominated by male egos knows she has to fight a little war: a struggle that is all the more challenging because it is fought below the surface. It requires the audacity to put behind us the hackneyed phrases such as “feminine ideals” and “work-life balance” that still monopolise our tedious debates. What women need is not to plead for mandatory quotas, but to challenge the thinly-disguised new sexism of the Ackermanns. In other words, balls for women.