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. 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: Why Oktoberfest is one of Germany’s worst beer festivals

The world-renowned Oktoberfest is returning to Germany after a two-year pandemic break. But one Bavarian local says pricey beers and rowdy mobs make it a special kind of hell - and there are much better festivals out there.

OPINION: Why Oktoberfest is one of Germany's worst beer festivals

A couple of weeks ago, we learned that Oktoberfest would finally return to Munich after two years of pandemic-related cancellations. Cue wild celebrations in the capital of Bavaria, with many clinking of comically large beer glasses and rhythmic swaying to AC/DC. Well, sort of. Let’s be honest, Germans rarely go wild, unless there’s a World Cup on or someone receives a particularly large tax rebate. Of course, Oktoberfest is one of those sanctioned moments of German delirium, and by all accounts organisers expect 2022 to be a very big year for lovers of Lederhosen, Wurst and, most importantly, beer.

READ ALSO: Germany’s Oktoberfest to return in 2022 after pandemic pause 

Of the handful of things people know about Germany, Oktoberfest is usually chief among them. Such is the pull of Germany’s largest and oldest beer festival. Although many people know of it, few know its background. Originally conceived as a one-off celebration for the wedding of Ludwig I of Bavaria to Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen in 1810, it continued to be celebrated to this day – which essentially makes it the longest running wedding reception in history. Though the Bavarian monarchy is now defunct, they have left in their stead something people from around the world can enjoy, as long as they can book a table.

Revellers enjoy the Oktoberfest atmosphere in September 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Matthias Balk

Ultimately, this is one of the major downsides of Oktoberfest. It’s really busy, and with it being cancelled for two years, it’s likely to be all the more busy as revellers flock to enjoy its return. Despite the vast majority being happy to dust off their Trachten (traditional costumes) come September, I know plenty who will be gritting their teeth for the onslaught of drunken visitors to Munich. While the bright lights of the Wiesn, as it is also known, will be front and centre in people’s minds, many Münchner will also remember the vomit-filled bins and mass public urination that always accompanies festivities.

READ ALSO: Oktoberfest in numbers: A look at Germany’s multi-billion euro business

Look past Oktoberfest to find local gems

Moreover, and this is where I usually have to speak in hushed tones, the Oktoberfest is probably one of the worst events of its type in the whole country, let alone Bavaria. Sure it has the scale and the brand awareness, but when has that ever been a good thing? Frankly, if I were to choose to go to any beer festival in Germany, Oktoberfest would be way down the list of options. The truth is, every city, town and village in Germany has something similar happening at some point in the year. In some places, it can be as many as three times annually. They aren’t as big and maybe they don’t have all the fairground attractions, but they will definitely have the beer and food. In certain places, such as Franconia, they offer far more than Oktoberfest ever could.

Take one of my favourite festivals, Erlangen Bergkirchweih. Most people outside Germany don’t even know it exists, but it is easily one of the most glorious of events. Situated on a small hill just outside the nondescript city of Erlangen, Bergkirchweih has all the same attractions as Oktoberfest, but with one vital difference: Franconian beer. Sure Augustiner get’s all the attention, but there are ten breweries in the Nürnbergerland alone that could handily match Munich’s favourite beer. 

Gingerbread hearts say "greetings from the Erlangen Bergkirchweih" in 2019.

Gingerbread hearts say “greetings from the Erlangen Bergkirchweih” in 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Karmann

What makes Erlangen Bergkirchweih so special? Well, the beer obviously, but the location is equal to any Maß. Many local breweries have their own little caves calved into the hill, originally used to store beer, but during Bergkirchweih they become little bars all of their own. Honestly, sitting under a canopy of elms, chestnuts and oaks, sunlight flitting down through the branches as you sup on an ice-cold Festbier, there’s really nothing like it. 

No one I’ve taken there has ever had a bad time, many of them don’t talk for an hour or so as they take in the surroundings and marvel at the prices, another benefit of not being at Oktoberfest. When my brother first saw it, he was silent for a very long time. Worried he wasn’t enjoying it, I asked if everything was OK. He looked at me, practically misty eyed and said simply: “It’s like a Grimm’s fairytale!”. 

Even if you can’t make your way to Bergkirchweih, should you find yourself travelling through Bavaria in the summer, look out for any signs that there might be a Dorffest or Volksfest in your vicinity. Hell, even a Jazzfest will do. They’re basically the same thing, except with added zoot. My advice would be to take the chance and check it out. Sure, you might end up in a tent full of farmers with hands like frying pans, but I guarantee it will be 10 times the experience of the plastic, overpriced, overly busy Oktoberfest.