The World from Berlin: 'Time is Running Out' for Gender Quotas at Work
Debate has been fierce in Berlin following the release of new wage inequality data and an EU threat to enforce a binding gender quota on companies. Amid growing support for such measures, German commentators agree that the dismal situation must change, but doubt that a quota is the best solution.
New statistics and pressure from the European Union have rekindled a long-running debate in Germany about the embarrassing state of gender equality in the professional world. The country continues to lag well behind other European nations in equal pay and the number of women in top positions, which has prompted heated disagreements among politicians in Berlin over the possibility of a legally binding quota.
On the occasion of the 101st International Women's Day on Thursday, members of the German parliament -- almost all of them female -- held an intense debate in Berlin. For the first time in the parliament's history, the center-right coalition government presented a gender equality report, which came to the sobering conclusion that despite nine years of voluntary agreements with the business world, little has changed in "gender distribution in leadership positions."
With women making up just 3 percent of boardroom professionals, Germany lags well behind most of its European neighbors, and isn't working quickly enough to change the situation, the opposition argued. Family Minister Kristina Schröder, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, was met with harsh criticism for rejecting a gender quota. In 2011, she helped large German companies avert a mandatory system to boost the proportion of women in top management, opting instead for a voluntary scheme. Earlier this week Schröder told daily Wiesbadener Kurier that Germany can do without recent "bureaucratic regulations and lectures from Brussels," but she is becoming increasingly isolated in her insistence against a legal quota, though in the past Chancellor Angela Merkel has supported her "flexi-quota."
Growing Support for Quota
But dissatisfied with the plan's progress, which has been slowed by resistance from Merkel's junior coalition partners, the pro-business Free Democrats, the opposition center-left Social Democrats (SPD) on Thursday announced a new proposal for a legally binding gender quota. "Let's continue fighting for women's rights," said the party's deputy parliamentary group leader Dagmar Ziegler, adding that women are "systematically" held back from leadership positions.
The environmentalist Greens support this, along with a further SPD proposal for a law that would require equal pay for equal work. As for the far-left Left Party, only female members of parliament took part in the debate -- male party members were attending a training seminar on women's careers instead.
A number of female politicians in Berlin have reportedly also signed a cross-party declaration that calls for a binding minimum quota of 30 percent women on the supervisory boards and executive committees of public companies. The agreement enjoys the support of prominent women in various associations, businesses and cultural institutions, among them Schröder's fellow conservative, Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who adamantly opposes the "flexi quota." EU commissioner Viviane Reding, who this week threatened to implement a Europe-wide gender quota for large companies, has also signed on.
On Monday, she announced that by summer she wants to make concrete proposals for an EU-wide gender quota. Her remarks follow a lackluster response to her voluntary system, whereby firms pledged to commit to a quota of 30 percent by 2015 and 40 percent by 2020. "Only 24 companies signed up and there was not a single German company among them," Reding told daily Die Welt.
Statistics released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on Monday seemed to confirm Reding's concerns. No other European country has as large a discrepancy between the salaries of men and women as Germany. Women working full time earn an average of 21.6 percent less than their male counterparts, according to the OECD. The average for the 34 industrialized countries that belong to the OECD is 16 percent. The new data also noted that Germany is near the bottom when it comes to women in the boardroom.
But the introduction of a legal gender quota for the EU remains unlikely, at least for now, because Brussels will need approval from member countries. For this reason, Reding plans to poll the public until the end of May, the results of which will determine whether she makes a draft proposal or just a recommendation.
Germany's commentators weigh in on the issue on Thursday.
Conservative daily Die Welt writes:
"A gender quota for all businesses and industrial sectors would be the wrong path. The question that self-proclaimed liberators of women fail to ask themselves is this: Do all women want the same kind of careers as men? For decades it was seen as progress when mothers were allowed to take maternity leave for several years. And the right to a part-time position was also celebrated here as a true accomplishment. Family life would be a lot poorer if both (husband and wife) were to work full-time."
"The majority of women workers aren't striving for top careers like men, but instead simply want to balance work and family. Instead of threatening industry with a rigid quota, politicians should concern themselves with setting a good example. In the short term, public institutions and state-owned companies can appoint women to the upper levels of leadership. In the private sector, on the other hand, a state-decreed gender quota would be a highly questionable invasion of the rights of shareholders. And it would rob women of the chance to prove that they can make it to the top without special treatment."
Financial daily Handelsblatt writes:
"We need a framework that allows for equal possibilities in climbing the career ladder for both women and men. A factor in this is combining family and work. Businesses must also do more But the flexibility demanded by politicians from companies and families can only be achieved when more flexible frameworks exist and are acknowledged within society. In another respect, politicians are acting too slowly, namely in areas where they themselves could lead the way in putting more women in top positions."
"German industry is aware that it has been asked to increase the number of women in its decision-making bodies in the foreseeable future. If the companies manage to significantly increase the number of women on their supervisory boards and send a clear signal, lawmakers in Brussels and Berlin should hold back."
"Companies and their shareholders hold the reins in the decision. Otherwise there is a risk that in the year of the next parliamentary election, politicians will stipulate a strict gender quota -- totally disconnected from business realities that they hope to change. Time is running out."
In an editorial to mark International Women's Day, the left-leaning Die Tageszeitung takes a look at gender equality in Germany:
"It appears as if centuries had not passed. And nothing remains from long struggles past, such as the burning of bras, the wearing of overalls, or from the refusal to play along in a system made for the universal amusement of men. Whether it's in vocational schools, in lecture halls or on the street, the girls' lips are painted red, their breasts are buxom, powdered and pushed up, their eyebrows are plucked in the right shapes and their hair has been styled for hours. The message: Take me, Tarzan!"
"Are these the self-confident post-feminists of today? In courses, career-oriented women are instructed on how to be strategically silent to avoid being classified as uppity or idealistic. Must we, today, on the 101st anniversary of the first International Women's Day, discover that we, at least in Germany, find ourselves again in the age of submission?"
-- Kristen Allen
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