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:
Observe the gender balance in the press corps left: 🇺🇸 right: 🇩🇪 https://t.co/YokoXJ5yye
— Deborah Cole (@doberah) February 7, 2022
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.
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.
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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.
The latest instalment of sexism in German media; a reporter calling Germany’s 41-year-old Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock “this young lady” (#diesejungedame). Women are both too old and too young, whatever age they are. https://t.co/TxaQVJuRcZ
— Abby Young-Powell (@abbyyoungpowell) February 9, 2022
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.