OPINION: Germany, we need to talk about sexism

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.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock speaks in Berlin during a press conference this week.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock speaks in Berlin during a press conference this week. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AFP POOL | John Macdougall

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. 

Member comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

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OPINION: Germany’s unfair school system entrenches inequality

Pupils in Germany are funnelled off into different schools at the age of 11, which map out whether they go down an academic or vocational route. But this model is unfair and disastrous for social mobility, says James Jackson.

OPINION: Germany's unfair school system entrenches inequality

This month, 11-year-olds in Germany will receive a letter which will influence their future more than perhaps anything else. The “letter of recommendation” from their teacher decides more than anything else whether the children go on to study academic subjects or more practical ones. 

Perhaps the biggest German success story in recent years, the BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, might not have happened due to the inequalities of opportunity in this system. Uğur Şahin, a scientific genius to whom the human race will be eternally grateful, wasn’t recommended to Gymnasium. His teacher didn’t recognise his obvious intelligence and his parents didn’t know how to argue against this. If it wasn’t due to the intervention of a German neighbour, it is quite possible the BioNTech vaccine wouldn’t have happened. 

When this story came out, a hashtag about being a good neighbour trended on German social media. But rather than being a good neighbour, wouldn’t an improvement be to get rid of an arbitrary system that can condemn bright children through oversight, luck, prejudice or malice? 

READ ALSO: What parents should know about German schools

‘Disastrous’ for social mobility

This idea of streaming children into different schools based on ability may sound meritocratic, similar to the grammar school system beloved by many conservatives. But the German school system is grammar schools on steroids, and it has had disastrous results for social mobility; Germany has some of the worst in the developed world, with only 15 percent of young people whose parents didn’t go to university end up graduating from one, four times less likely than those with parents who did. It’s not just about education: Germany is second to last in the OECD in how many people rise from the bottom 25 percent to the top 25 percent economically too. Reports make clear these discrepancies aren’t just about the streaming system – low uptake in early childhood education and below EU average education funding also play a role.

The school system differs slightly across each state but basically there are three types: Gymnasium, Hauptschule and Realschule. Gymnasium are the most academic and pupils go on to do Abitur, which is usually needed to get into university. Students can transfer from one to another, but by most accounts it isn’t easy. And while Gymnasiums and school streaming or tracking does exist in other countries, Germany has the strictest form of it. 

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Rather than being based on an exam such as Britain’s 11+ model (which itself benefits parents with the means to hire private tutors or the time and education to help their children study) it is based arbitrarily on the opinion of an individual teacher, who parents often make efforts to impress. Yes, teachers in Germany are highly trained professionals, but all people have unconscious biases and some people have conscious ones. Blind studies show that children with non-German or working class names like Kevin receive worse marks for the same piece of schoolwork. 

It seems bizarre and unfair to make the decision at such an early age when children develop at different speeds – that’s if you need to make such a decision at all. Some of the school systems with the best results in the world such as Finland’s have a totally comprehensive system with no streaming at all. 

Due to reforms in recent decades, the letter of recommendation is only compulsory in three German federal states, this isn’t necessarily a huge improvement. A 2019 study “The Many (Subtle) Ways Parents Game the System” showed how parents with more social capital, themselves usually white German and better-off, can get their children into Gymnasium regardless of grades and a letter of recommendation. Is giving pushy parents even more opportunities necessarily an improvement?

Children in primary school in Germany.

Children in primary school in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

Supporters of the system say that not everyone is suited to academic study and we should allow for all kinds of different paths in life, and point to pretty decent income equality in the country. I agree, someone who gets technical qualifications being able to earn a decent living is something to be proud of in the German system, but why should that be determined by who your parents are? It doesn’t give working class people the opportunity to rise to the top – and changing careers in Germany is notoriously hard. 

As it stands, the system appears quasi-feudal to an outsider, with people passing their societal position onto their children especially in a system where academic titles carry so much prestige that politicians plagiarising PhDs is a scandal. And while most middle class Germans I’ve met are pretty honest that their country could do more to integrate immigrants, there can be a pretty prickly response if you bring up class differences, despite the plethora of Von’s and Zu’s in media, politics and industry. I received far more backlash online with this topic than any other, from education professionals with academic titles galore. It made me wonder, if a teacher is going to relentlessly savage a professional journalist for expressing a critical opinion, how will they treat a misbehaving student?

Education reforms are ‘controversial’

There have been attempts to introduce comprehensive schools or “Gesamtschulen” in various states, but they have hit major roadblocks from furious parents – one might argue they felt their privilege threatened. Education reforms are massively controversial in Germany generally. A striking proportion of Referendums and Citizen’s Initiatives across the country have been about repealing educational reforms, especially those which simplify the German language. No wonder approaching it is political suicide, mostly avoided even by progressive parties like the Left and the Greens. Educated people are a powerful constituency, with more money, representation and power. Meanwhile those disadvantaged are less likely to vote or even be able to vote. 

READ ALSO: What foreign parents really think about German schools

For a country that styles itself as the Land of “Dichter und Denker” (poets and thinkers) it’s no surprise that Germany takes education so seriously. Education also played an important role in the development of the country as the so-called Bildungsbürger (member of the educated classes) gained a liberalising influence in the mid 18th Century. But the results weren’t always stellar. The so-called PISA shock of 2008 was the first time that students across Europe were compared with each other, and Germany performed poorly. Though the average attainment has improved since then, it still isn’t as spectacular as many Gymnasium fans think, scoring about the same as the UK which has mostly comprehensive schools, while scoring desperately low for equity in social backgrounds. 

Education and what role the state should play in it is an emotive question. To me, it seems egregious that the state is funding a system that is shown to entrench social and educational inequality and segregate people based on what is more often than not their social class. The philosopher of science Stephen Jay Gould wrote “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” In Germany, he may have written that they were consigned to Hauptschule because of their name instead.