Germany — a country ruled by sexists? A ridiculous thought, it would seem, for Europe’s most powerful nation: after all, we have a female chancellor. A quota for women in the boardroom may soon be enshrined in law.
What is astonishing, however, is how backward the treatment of sexism, in particular closet sexism, still is in Germany. We are not talking about open sexual harassment; the real test is the “harmless” comments that are meant to be “just a bit of fun”. What these can lead to is shown by the Brüderle affair. It all began with a brief encounter at a party conference last year between 68-year-old Rainer Brüderle, the parliamentary leader of the liberal Free Democratic Party (junior partner in Angela Merkel’s coalition government), and Laura Himmelreich, a 29-year-old journalist on the weekly magazine Stern.
In an article entitled “The Dirty Joke”, which unleashed a media storm last month, Laura Himmelreich recalled what happened when journalists mingled with politicians at the bar one evening. Himmelreich was deep in conversation with Brüderle when she realised he was gazing rather too intently at her breasts. “You could certainly fill a dirndl,” he said suggestively, before taking her hand, kissing it and propositioning her. Himmelreich gave him a tactful brush-off, reminding him that she was a journalist and he a politician. Yet Brüderle persisted with his advances: “In the end we are all only human.”
At one level, this sounds like a peculiarly German take on House of Cards or The Thick of It. Obviously Brüderle’s chat-up lines make him look a fool: first, to suppose that he could seduce a sophisticated female journalist less than half his age by referencing traditional Bavarian dress and, secondly, that he could excuse his behaviour as “only human”. Do politicians like him really think they can get away with insinuating that attractive young women are “provocative” or “asking for it”?
But Brüderle evidently couldn’t take no for an answer. Himmelreich said the evening ended when he said goodbye to his fellow politicians and then moved much too close to her face. She said she stepped back and put her hands in front of her body. Too late, a female colleague of Brüderle then quickly stepped in, telling the politician that it was “time for bed”. Reluctantly, he complied. However, this wasn’t the end of the story, but the trigger for last month’s public debate.
What to do with Brüderle and his type? Some — mainly older — men just don’t seem to know any better, perhaps because they are not used to being around strong females, let alone women of equal status. There was a strong reaction to the Brüderle affair from female journalists, some of whom shared similar experiences on Twitter. Other (male) commentators argued that Germans simply weren’t used to being easy-going and flirtatious in their encounters with the opposite sex. An argument often heard was: we don’t want a workplace like the Americans, who are so litigious that one always has to keep the doors open. I wonder, though, how the debate would have shaped up if it had been about racism instead of sexism. The tone would surely have been less chummy.
For women who inhabit the world of politics and media, it’s taken for granted that you are defined by your gender as much as by your achievements. Most of my (few) female colleagues at one of the country’s largest newspapers have experienced some encounter that may be classified as sexist — to be treated, that is, in a way no man would be treated (whether it be a collegial pat on the lower part of your back by a superior, an all-too lingering look at your blouse, or a “joke” about whether you gained your degree by smiling the right way).
Now, I myself have got used to this treatment — which, I should add, is the exception, not the norm. I find it grotesque in a mildly amusing way. I don’t see women as victims. Indeed, I don’t believe in a strong distinction between male and female behaviour. In my environment women often seem much more ballsy than men.
There’s a fine line between being casual and being uninhibited. It may be entertaining (for both sides) to cross it occasionally, but young professional women should not be seen as fair game by older, more powerful men. After all, the same scenario with the roles reversed is unimaginable. While such blatant transgressions are, fortunately, unusual in German public life, in private sexism remains the norm. At least now we’re having an open discussion about what is and isn’t permissible. It doesn’t need to result in measures to enforce a claustrophobic prudishness. At the risk of sounding a bit prudish myself, I would say that it’s all down to decent behaviour, in this case proper self-control on the part of the elderly male politician at the bar. It’s interesting that a supposedly enlightened, liberal party, in coalition with Chancellor Merkel, has someone at the top who seems to stand for the opposite of enlightenment.