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Background: German Antidiscrimination Law Still in the Works

Germany has been working on an antidiscrimination law, as required by the European Union. It has failed to pass one, however -- the proposal got hung up in debate over implementation details.

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Justitia may watch over the law, but women still lack protection against discrimination

The parties involved couldn't agree how far beyond basic EU requirements the law should go. The current government may soon face sanctions from the European Court of Justice.

But when people debate the antidiscrimination law, they are mainly talking about discrimination on the basis of race, religion or disability, not gender, said Ute Sacksofsky, a legal scholar at the University of Frankfurt who specializes in constitutional law and gender studies.

Basic German law does, already, provide for gender equality.

"It is clear on a legal level that sex discrimination is not permissible," she said. "The problem is on a cultural level."

For one thing, structures that could be helpful in supporting equality are often weak.

"We don't have class action lawsuits (in Germany,) that may make a difference. We don't have a federal commission that supports people (like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the US, or the UK's Equal Opportunities Commission.) It may happen, but not yet."

Volu n tary cha n ge

If there is no threat of a lawsuit to scare German firms into good behavior, what will?

A look across the channel at Britain could, possibly, shed light on the future of gender discrimination suits in Continental Europe. Britain lifted the cap on awards in discrimination claims in 1993, sparking a leap in litigation. That grew greater still after the burden of proof in a discrimination case was shifted to the employer in 2001.

When Germany does eventually pass an antidiscrimination law, it could affect the litigation landscape. At present, however, German firms seem content to put gender-equality measures into effect to the extent that they are useful to the bottom line and company morale. Pressure seems mostly to come in the form of campaigns to improve the lot of women in the workplace, not fear of punishment.

Since 1996, the association Total Equality has given out annual awards to companies and organizations that show a long-term commitment to equal opportunity in their personnel policy. So far, it has given its seal of approval to more than 100 institutions.

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