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Fighting Sexism in Germany: The Answer is Simpler than You Think

The New York Times publishes an op-ed on sexism in Germany:

Based on the global reputation and overall popularity of Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany appears from the outside to be a country where equality between men and women has long been established.

Yet thousands of German women have taken to social media in recent days to tell a radically different story — one of daily sexism experienced by female interns who are told that “hot girls” receive special treatment or a young woman being informed that she will not get a job because she might become pregnant....

A woman who gave her name as Gudrun Lux posted about seeing her application for a job rejected because, she was told, “the boss does not want any women of childbearing age.” Another calling herself Su-Shee recounted interviewing a young male applicant who asked to see “the real boss, the man.”

Nicole Simon, 42, a social media consultant in Germany who also contributed to the debate, described the outpouring as an example of the years of pent-up frustration over episodes that are so prevalent that women learn to simply block them out.

“Consensus online seemed to be, ‘I thought I could not share these stories, but reading all the other things, I am surprised at how much I have suppressed over the years,”’ Ms. Simon said in an e-mail.

According to ministry for women and families, 58 percent of German women say they have been subject to sexual harassment, with more than 42 percent of the cases happening on the job.

In Germany, this sort of thing provokes a lot of thumb-sucking about What it All Means, and warnings that we must change our priorities, etc.

In other words, ineffectual hand-waving.

The first thing to do is separate out the serious from the not-so-serious problem. The not-so-serious problem is occasional flirtatious remarks. This is something that women can, and should, handle themselves. If you don't like a co-worker's clumsy or creepy remarks, tell him that, to his face, with increasing levels of acidulousness. You don't get as much respect in this life as you deserve, you get as much as you demand. What use was feminism if it hasn't put women into a position to set boundaries and denounce misconduct?

The more serious problem is women being denied job opportunities or asked for sexual favors by superiors, etc. First, though, let me list the things that don't work:

  • bureaucratic reports
  • vague laws
  • finger-wagging speeches by superiors
  • waiting for a 'sea-change in social attitudes'
  • sensitivity training

None of these things will change ingrained attitudes and prejudices. What will change them is meaningful, painful financial penalties and public shaming. Germany has various laws that are designed to combat pregnancy and gender discrimination, but they're toothless, and therefore little-used. If someone in a position to hire people actually tells a woman she won't get the job because she might get pregnant, that should lead to a €10,000 penalty payable by the company and a public denunciation on a government webpage. Of course, the supervisor who made the remark will probably get fired for getting his company into so much trouble. Good! That's called accountability. Of course, the actual behavior will probably still continue underground, etc. But at least it won't be openly tolerated. And there are ways of rooting out even subtle discrimination.

To get an idea of what transparency and accountability looks like, just go here, to the website of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a government agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws. The agency boasts that it filed 100,000 lawsuits in 2012, and forced companies to pay $365 million in fines and compensation in 2012 alone. Also, as you can see, there is a running ticker on the webpage listing, by name, companies which have recently been forced to compensate people whom they discriminated against. It's not a perfect system, but it's certainly more effective than what Germany is doing.


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The problem isn't limited to women. Beautiful women and tall men both get a better deal than their average-looking peers.

It's striking how women have monopolized the victim subsidy.


I agree with Damon that putting a stop to a coworker's come-ons is not so easy and can ultimately result in subtle (and not so subtle) retribution on the job. For many women, being on the receiving end of "flirtatious remarks" on the job is a regular, frustrating experience that leads to utter dread, as if other aspects of employment weren't bad enough.

The problem is - contrary to what I've read of late - unwanted advances are part of the sexist dynamic. From top to bottom, certain men behave in in certain ways because they know they can get away with it; more often than not, a woman who complains about someone who won't refrain from lurid innuendo, after having been asked to do so, will be seen as hysterical and a detriment to the morale in the workplace.

John Carter Wood

Interestingly enough there are some suggestions that Germany's not doing all that badly on gender equality, at least in a comparative sense and by some measurements.


Although I agree overall with your post, I'm not sure that I agree with your assessment about what constitutes "harmless" flirtation and the ease with women can dismiss it. In particular, I worry about "flirtation" from clumsy or creepy superiors (and let's face it--in Germany, women are more likely to be subordinates in a rigidly hierarchical system than superiors). Can she turn people down without worrying that her carrier might not advance? What if a promotion is on the table? How can she tell if her career isn't advancing because she refuses to flirt (unacceptable) or just because she's not competent (acceptable). Explicit zero-tolerance policies for flirtation are probably unacceptable because of the likelihood of misinterpretation (i.e. a man not really flirting, but a woman thinks he is). But, unofficially discouraging flirtation, especially between superiors and subordinates, might be a wiser policy.

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