OPINION: Germany, we need to talk about sexism

Caitlin Hardee
Caitlin Hardee - [email protected]
OPINION: Germany, we need to talk about sexism
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock speaks in Berlin during a press conference this week. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AFP POOL | John Macdougall

From one of the most powerful German politicians being patronised on TV to workplace misogyny and backwards reproductive rights, Caitlin Hardee says it's high time Germany addressed its sexism problem.


It's been a stomach-churning week to be a woman in Germany.

Ladies, has it been a while since you were GerMansplained, or belittled by a healthcare professional, or realised how much less you earn than your male colleagues? Not to worry - a rapid-fire barrage of high-profile news cycles has put the sexism rife in the Bundesrepublik front and centre again.

In the space of a week, we saw a prominent female politician demeaned on national television, learned that the extremely murky scandal involving claims of sexual misconduct at the media giant Axel Spring was probably even more egregious than previously reported, and received a nice visual reminder of just how unequal the corridors of power in media and politics still can be, particularly in Germany:

Yes, we have just emerged from 16 years with Angela Merkel as chancellor of Germany. But in a sense, the Merkel era was a fig leaf - as long as the world's most powerful woman was steering the ship, Germany could pose as a progressive leader on women's rights without actually doing the work.

I know when I moved here over a decade ago, I bought into the fairytale of Germany being ahead of the curve in so many aspects (including women's rights), until a thousand jarring little experiences stacked up and built an unflattering picture of a country trapped in the 80s, or maybe the 50s, with regards to persisting bone-deep assumptions about women, structural inequalities in the workplace, entrenched sexism in the medical establishment and regressive barriers to reproductive medicine.

READ ALSO: Angela Merkel - What did Germany's first female chancellor do for women?

In 2020, women in Germany still earned 18 percent less than their male counterparts. Germany is often lauded for its extensive parental leave, but in a way it's a velvet coffin for women's careers: while fathers often take a token few months, women drop out of the workforce for a year or more, and suffer lifelong setbacks on earnings, promotions and pension payments. Should they buck the trend and return to work sooner, they're criticised, and are sometimes called Rabenmütter - "raven mothers," cold and calculating. 


Don’t want to become a mother in this environment? Well, open your wallet – the contraceptive pill isn’t covered by standard health insurance in Germany for most women over the age of 22. In most cases, the morning-after pill isn’t either. At least it doesn't require a prescription anymore: the quest for the honour of paying out-of-pocket for Plan B used to involve a day-long odyssey between church-linked clinics that flat-out refused to prescribe it, and doctors nosily demanding a play-by-play of your sexual history. Small mercies. Germany’s latest government – the traffic-light coalition – intends to liberalise prior restrictions on information regarding abortion access, but up until now, Germany has been firmly mired in the past on this front as well.


Speaking of the new federal government, this week was a good reminder that no matter how competent and powerful you are, if you're a woman, there's always some GerMan ready with a sexist, condescending quip. When Merkel was running things, she got stuck with the moniker "Mutti" [Mommy], despite being childless.

Now it's Annalena Baerbock's turn. The Green Foreign Minister of one of the world's most influential nations has been abroad, with a work itinerary including stops in unsettled regions like Ukraine and the Middle East. Discussing these events on the morning news, Tagesspiegel journalist Christoph von Marschall needed a fitting descriptor for the 41-year-old minister - and settled on the patronising "diese junge Dame" (this young lady) He followed it up with an assertion that Baerbock seemed not to feel at ease in this environment, and concluded that it (the world stage? global politics? power?) wasn't her world. 

Condemnation came swiftly, with German and international journalists and politicians eviscerating von Marschall's choice of words. He issued a half-hearted apology, and on the other end of the spectrum, reactionary voices bemoaned a perceived debate culture of outrage. Yet another media storm in a teacup, which hits a nerve for many women working and living in Germany, but will probably simply entrench the consciously and subconsciously sexist in their positions and fail to change much of anything. 


After all, Germany's initial #MeToo moment came even earlier than the global movement, with an extended 2013 news cycle under the slogan #Aufschrei (oucry) kicked off by journalist Laura Himmelreich's revelations of sexist behaviour concerning FDP politician Rainer Brüderle.

And yet despite the conservative pundits denouncing "Genderwahn" (gender madness) and supposed cancel culture run amok, here we still are. In the day-to-day of German workplaces and society, it is clear that true gender equality has a very long way to go. 


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kim-dallas 2022/02/19 10:50
And what about the fact that only if you FATHER is a German National can you more easily obtain naturalisation?
lyssa77 2022/02/13 00:28
Should they buck the trend and return to work sooner, they’re criticised, and are sometimes called Rabenmütter – “raven mothers,” cold and calculating. Oh my gosh, yes! My first born child was turning 3 and one women, a friend of my boyfriend's, asked if I was itching to get back to work. I was confused. I responded that I had been working full-time since he turned 6 months old. Her hand quickly went to her mouth, a gasp uttered, and her eyes looked so sad. She apologized for intruding. She hadn't been aware that we were having "money issues". I was stunned. We weren't. I told her we both made plenty of money, but I trained for a long time to become an engineer and I was good at it. I was happy and work and felt my employer offered a very good work/life balance. She shook her head, eyes downcast. I asked her what was wrong. She said she didn't understand. If I didn't want to stay home and raise my children, why did I bother having them. Then I was angry. I asked simply, "Would you ask him the same question? She had never even considered it. Yes. This would NEVER have been a conversation in the US. I was stunned to learn that employers here in Germany can ask if you are pregnant, have children, or plan to have children. These questions are not allowed in the US. Crazy to me.
Dustinkf 2022/02/11 13:42
When Germany isn't Progressive enough for today's Progressives!
wadeizzel 2022/02/11 08:11
It's always amazing how consistent leftist feminists are, in how they make grand claims about sexism and provide so little evidence. Women take time off and prioritize family over career? I'm sorry that the free choices of women and an inherent maternal instinct offends your feminist sensibilities. A female politician is criticized, undermined? Wow, that neeeever happens to men. In general people just love to treat politicians with kid gloves, right? Or is a woman in power simply too fragile to handle criticism? Sounds quite sexist of you. Gotta pay for your own contraception? Boohoo. It's called being an adult. Don't get to murder the innocent human life in your womb without a breath of inconvenience? Not being able to burn a baby in acid or suck it's brains out must be very hard for you, shame. What a joke of an article.

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