About two months ago, The Local took to the streets of Berlin to speak to women about their experiences of sexual harassment in Germany.
At the time, the #MeToo initiative had just launched and people the world over were showing their solidarity and sharing their personal stories of sexual harassment under the hashtag.
While a few of the women we spoke to said they had been harassed sexually before, a young woman named Marge said she “luckily” had not, adding that “in Germany it’s not so openly discussed.”
Following rape and sexual harassment allegations from dozens of female actresses against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, in America the misconduct of several other prominent people has since made global headlines.
In France and in Sweden the movement has gone well beyond a hashtag, with thousands of women demonstrating on the streets of Paris and high profile figures in Swedish politics and media facing repercussions in their careers due to harassment accusations.
Germany on the other hand has yet to see the same scale of reports of sexual wrongdoing. This doesn’t necessarily mean though that sexual harassment isn’t an issue in the country.
Harassment by male superiors
Only 400 workplace incidents of sexual harassment have been reported at Germany’s Federal Anti-Discrimination Office (ADS) since it was founded eleven years ago, according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ). This is in spite of the fact that people can approach the institution anonymously.
But a YouGov survey conducted in October found that 43 percent of female respondents and 12 percent of male respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment before. Over half (60 percent) of the assaults came from colleagues, the respondents stated. Meanwhile, it was much more common to be harassed by superiors (46 percent) than by subordinates (9 percent).
Photo: Deposit Photos/tomwang.
The survey results “are not surprising at all” for psychologist and professor Sonja Sackmann at the Bundeswehr University in Munich, who believes the real numbers could be even higher.
“Sexual harassment usually happens when there is a power difference. Frequently it’s males who are in the manager position, and it’s the dependent female who is actually harassed,” Sackmann told The Local.
If it were the other way around, for instance if there were more female managers than male managers, or if the genders were balanced, this would “definitely” change the debate, she adds.
In Germany, only 29 percent of women are in high-ranking professional positions such as company managers, according to a World Economic Forum ranking in 2016. And women made up just 6.7 percent of executive board members at 160 market-listed companies surveyed in an report by consultancy firm EY earlier this year.
The silence breakers (or lack thereof)
Well-known actress Nina Brandhoff was one of the first people in Germany after #MeToo kicked off to speak publicly about the problem of sexual harassment in the entertainment industry.
The 42-year-old told Spiegel Online that on one occasion a director who had promised her a role said to her: “I would like to get your breasts out of your shirt and play around with them.”
“The perpetrators have such power because they profit from the silence of the victims and their shame,” she said.
Since the actress came forward, so, too have other German actors. The majority of them don’t dare disclose their names though. And few – if any – public figures in various other industries have spoken up in solidarity with Brandhoff.
But it is difficult to compare Germany with other countries in terms of the #MeToo campaign’s global success, says Sackmann.
A woman at a #MeToo demonstration in New York City in early December. Photo: DPA.
“Sweden and America have a democratic culture; in these countries discussions about equal opportunities and more women entering the workplace started much earlier,” she argues.
What is considered sexual harassment also differs from country to country and culture to culture, the psychologist adds.
A recent YouGov poll carried out in wake of the Weinstein scandal shows that Germans are less likely than their European neighbours to consider risque actions like staring at a woman’s cleavage to be sexual harassment.
'Executives need to be role models'
Fear of repercussions appear to play a role in the fact that so few German women speak about the problem.
According to Sackmann, women “don't like speaking about it because it can have implications for them personally in their private lives.”
“If they keep it to themselves, things go on as usual,” she says.
Head of the Federal Anti-Discrimination Office, Christine Lüders, partially agrees.
“Many people don't dare talk about harassment because they fear the consequences or think there is no point in talking about it,” Lüders told DPA.
This means that companies should be working even harder to address the issue and take advantage of the #MeToo campaign to raise much-needed discussions, according to Sackmann.
“Executives need to be role models. The way male executives behave, their attitude and their language show others what is appropriate or inappropriate,” she said.
On whether the campaign still has the potential to take off in Germany, the psychologist is hopeful but has her doubts.
“We still have a long way to go,” she says.