Women and Power Why Germany Needs a Gender Quota

Statistics show that female executives in Germany's top companies are a rarity.

Statistics show that female executives in Germany's top companies are a rarity.

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Part 5: Can Work and Life Be Balanced?

Is Mika right? One doesn't have to agree with her rage and her indignation, but some of her warnings are reasonable. Of course women aren't without blame for the dilemma.

Women who opt to stay at home entirely take a huge risk. More than 30 percent of marriages fail, and based on the current legal framework, women cannot expect to continue receiving support after a divorce. Many women face the prospect of poverty if they give up their jobs and their husbands subsequently divorce them or die prematurely.

It is indeed true that women often use status as a criterion in choosing a partner. This appears to be part of an erotic game, and there is no harm in recognizing that fact. The awareness enables women to make more informed decisions on how much they are willing to bet in this game: Their own livelihood? Their own professional development?

One can't have it both ways: Allowing the husband with the great job to pay for one's pleasant, though somewhat uncertain life, and even enjoying it, but then complaining about not having a say in the world outside the home.

Holding a responsible position in the working world necessarily means making a sacrifice. Someone who hopes to fill a position of leadership also has to be available when needed, or else things quickly start to go wrong. Taking three years off for maternity leave isn't an option. A company can't improvise for that long.

The Idea Lives On

Every line of work, without exception, has its hardships. Mika says that latte-macchiato mothers are only willing to accept the pleasant side of work, and that they demand more than they are willing to give. These kinds of women certainly exist, partly because it's a tradition in Germany. It arises from a courtly notion which later found its way into the middle classes: Women are entitled to a pleasant life. Those with even just a passing knowledge of the history of royal courts and the bourgeoisie know that life was rarely pleasant for princesses and the women of the bourgeoisie. But the idea lives on.

But how many latte-macchiato mothers are there really? Who belongs to this group and who doesn't? Working mothers take their children to kindergartens with eight-hour care. They are in a state of permanent rush -- in an effort to do justice to both their children and their work. It's all a question of perspective -- and of resentment. But that doesn't get us anywhere. Mika's choice of words, like "lazy" and "comfortable," is soaked in resentment. The emancipation debate of the last 40 years was shaped by women's reproaches against men. These reproaches have achieved almost nothing. Resentments between women won't do much good either.

Numbers and facts are the only things that can produce results today. That includes concrete and serious offers to invite women to participate. If it becomes an accepted fact that women are represented in all facets of the working world, the middle-class notions will also change. That's the only way it will work.

Barbara Vinken is a professor of Romance studies at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. She made a name for herself with her book "Die deutsche Mutter" ("The German Mother"), which was published 10 years ago and has become a standard work in the gender debate.

'Difficult Image of Women'

On a damp January day, Vinken is wearing light-colored fishnet stockings, patent leather pumps and a short, elegant skirt in her office at the university. The art magazine Monopol calls her "Germany's most glamorous professor." Vinken, the mother of a son, doesn't look at all the way one might imagine a "German mother," nor does she look remotely the way German career coaches imagine a woman in a male-dominated profession.

A conversation with Vinken soon reveals why this is the case. She says that the Germans have a "difficult image of women," and that "the conditions for women are not good here." Vinken constantly reverts to French as she speaks. She is German but heavily influenced by France, and if she has any role models, they are French women. French women usually work full-time, often pursuing careers just as men do, and in most cases they don't even think about whether to have children, but about how many children they want to have. Female politicians in France also wear skirts much of the time.

Vinken, 51, believes that women in Germany are hindered by cultural norms. "Women in Germany have internalized the notion that they have to choose: either to be housewives and exclusively mothers, or businesswomen who have to become like men to prevail in the professional world." The model of the woman who is purely a housewife is still socially accepted, says Vinken.

Femininity as a Shortcoming

Professional women, on the other hand, are viewed as "insufficient," Vinken believes, and points out that in Germany they are perceived to be lacking something if they are not mothers. Mothers who work full- or part-time, on the other hand, are constantly made to feel that they performing both roles "inadequately," by being "too feminine" in a male working world and, as a working woman, being "not feminine enough" at home. "No matter how women resolve this problem," says Vinken, "femininity in Germany is perceived as a shortcoming."

The reasons, says Vinken, are deeply embedded in history. She believes that the roots of the mother cult lie in Martin Luther's ideal of the family. The image of the über-mother, she adds, has been exploited throughout history, especially by the Nazis.

No one readily abandons role stereotypes if he or she doesn't recognize a benefit in doing so. People want recognition, and the easiest way to get it is to satisfy expectations. The quota would encourage women to run departments independently. New role models would be created.

No one carves out a successful career by being nice and modest, by not bragging about one's achievements, by feeling embarrassed to talk about money, and by trying to keep everyone happy instead of thinking about the future. This sort of behavior only negates the diligence that also typifies women.

The feminine virtues pay off during school and even at the university. Teachers like diligent female pupils, and diligent female students will always find a professor to mentor them. As a result, the education system produces alpha females with excellent grades in high school and later at the university. But the professional world isn't just about content. Assertiveness, visibility and the size of one's office are also important.


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