What does the #MeToo campaign reveal about work culture in Germany?

The global #MeToo campaign hasn’t quite taken off the same way in this country as it has in others, such as the US and Sweden. The Local looks at what this says about German culture - particularly in the workplace.

What does the #MeToo campaign reveal about work culture in Germany?
Photo: DPA.

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.

With DPA

READ ALSO: #MeToo debate could 'totally sterilize' German workplace, ex-families minister warns

For members


7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

Taking the decision to go it alone and freelance in Germany can be a daunting prospect. But, if you do it right, it can be an exciting and liberating path. Here are some of our top tips on how to survive.

7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

1. Get a tax advisor

The German tax system is complicated, even for Germans. All the associated paperwork uses the Amtsprache (authority language) which is more like legalese than ‘normal’ German, and mistakes when filling out tax forms can cause you, at best, a massive headache and, at worst, a costly fine. So it’s best that you employ someone who knows what they’re doing to help you out.

That person is called a Steuerberater (tax advisor) in Germany. They will help you register with the tax office, correspond with them and submit your tax declarations.

Be aware that, in Germany, different deadlines apply for tax returns depending on whether you employ an official tax advisor or not. If you are doing the tax return on your own, the deadline for submitting your annual tax return is earlier than if you use a tax advisor’s services. 

READ ALSO: What NOT to do when you’re freelancing in Germany

When looking for a tax advisor, a top tip is to use your network to get recommendations. Ideally, you want someone who will do more than just fill in the forms for you, but who will actually advise you on how best to manage your business finances so that you can make tax savings.

2. Keep your accounting in order

The better you keep your own accounts in order, the easier it will be for your tax advisor to compile your tax declarations and therefore the cheaper their services will be.

As a freelancer, there are a lot of costs you can deduct from your taxes – from train tickets, working materials, to meals out – so it’s best to keep hold of all your receipts and to keep them in good order.

2 euros and 50 cents lie on a receipt in a beer garden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

In Germany, you’re obliged to keep hold of receipts for two years, in case of a tax inspection, so it’s a good idea to photocopy the type of machine-printed receipts you get from restaurants so that they stay legible for a long time.

There are also a few things to be aware of when writing your own invoices. Firstly, make sure that you include your tax number. This isn’t the 11-digit Steueridentifikationsnummer that everyone gets when registering in Germany, but the 10-digit Steuernummer you get from the Finanzamt after registering yourself as a freelancer. 

Most companies won’t pay you if you don’t have this on your invoices so make sure you include it.

You should also make sure that you number your invoices properly – ideally in ascending order so that you can easily keep track of them. You are not allowed to issue two invoices with the same number and if you do so and the finance office notices, you could face an inspection of your whole accounting system.

There are numerous great accounting software programmes you can use to help you, such as Lexoffice and Sevdesk and, even if you have to pay for them, the costs will be tax deductible!

3. Find out if you’re eligible for financial support

In Germany, there are several opportunities for freelancers to gain financial support and to cut their outgoings, and its worth finding out if you’re eligible for them.

If you’re claiming unemployment benefits under ALG 1 and are thinking about becoming a freelancer, the employment office offers a special type of financial support to help you to get your freelance business off the ground.

Called the Grundungszuschuss (“foundation grant”) the payment is a six-month grant equalling your monthly entitlement under ALG 1 plus €300 towards your insurance costs can be applied for those in receipt of this unemployment benefit.

READ ALSO: Will freelancers benefit from Germany’s €300 energy allowance?

If you are engaged in some form of artistic profession in Germany – which can include journalism to pottery – you may be entitled to membership to the Kunstlersozialkasse (artists’ social insurance).

Being a member of the KSK means you only have to pay half of your health insurance and pension contributions, and the KSK will pay the rest.

4. Work out how much you think you will earn

As with starting any business, you need to have some idea of your expected earnings from the outset.

If you’re just starting out as a freelancer, or have some freelance gigs on the side of an employment position, then it might be worth considering registering yourself as a Kleinunternehmer (“small business”).

As a Kleinunternehmer, you can currently earn up to €22.000 per year without having to charge VAT and having to submit only yearly tax declarations. 

An income tax declaration form lies on a table. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Hans-Jürgen Wiedl

Be aware that if you are registered as this kind of freelancer, you must include the following sentence in your invoices: ‘Gemäß § 19 UStG wird keine Umsatzsteuer berechnet’ which means ‘In accordance with Paragrah19 of the German VAT law, no VAT has been added to this invoice.’

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about your German tax return in 2022

If you think you will earn more than €22.000 per year, you will need to pay Umsatzsteuer (VAT) and will have to submit tax declarations in advance and more often. Depending on how much you earn, this could be every month or every quarter. 

5. Get your insurance in order

In Germany, it’s a legal requirement to have health insurance.

If you’ve just made the move from employment to being a freelancer and want to keep the same health insurer, you should get in contact with your health insurance provider straight away to tell them about your change of circumstances. They will ask you to re-register and to tell them your projected freelance earnings for the year, so they can amend your monthly fees.

If you don’t keep your health insurer provider updated, you could continue to be charged the higher rate that you had from your previous salary.

The insurance cards of the health insurance companies DAK, AOK, Barmer and Techniker-Krankenkasse TK lie with euro notes under a stethoscope. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Daniel Karmann

It’s not just health insurance you need to think about as a freelancer. It’s also wise to think about protecting yourself from any sort of claims that could arise as a result of any working mishaps. 

If, for example, you lose your laptop which contains confidential client information, you need to be protected against claims.

That’s why it’s good to have both Betriebshaftversicherung (business liability insurance) and Rechtschutzversicherung (legal protection insurance).

6. Plan your time wisely

All of these bureaucratic obligations take time. So it’s really important that you take account of that when planning your time. For example, planning half a day a week to deal with your invoices, filing, emails to clients, and conversations with authorities can be really beneficial when scheduling your working time. 

7. Grow your network

As a freelancer, networking is absolutely crucial to success. 

Keep an up-to-date profile on websites like LinkedIn and German equivalent XING and keep in contact with anyone you’ve ever worked with, no matter how brief the contact was. 

Having a network is not only about getting more clients, but also about building a support network in your field to exchange advice, tips and generally for your own enrichment. 

Participating in workshops related to your field, going to seminars, and meet-ups, can be great ways of broadening your network.