Sexism in the workplace is perpetuated by cultural values | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 03.03.2015
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Sexism in the workplace is perpetuated by cultural values

Well over half of employed Germans have been sexually harassed or discriminated against in the workplace, according to a new study. The reasons, along with the answers, lie in societal structures.

One of my superiors once told me how he would take groups of male business associates visiting from out of town to a brothel. It was a tradition that had started before his time, he said. It was simply done in the male world of business networking.

This brought a number of questions to mind, but one in particular: If this is the playing field, how can women ever get ahead? I wondered if this was indicative of a culture of discrimination and sexual harassment.

According to a study published on March 3 by Germany's federal anti-discrimination office, sexual harassment is rampant in the workplace. Half of all people polled have experienced it. The forms of harassment vary, as described in the table below, but are mostly verbal.

Anne Wizorek, a German feminist who contributes to the #Aufschrei campaign on Twitter and the blog "kleinerdrei.org," which "is not a fashion blog," as it specifically points out, said women suffer psychologically from harassment because they know it can happen at any time. "They aren't just isolated cases. And knowing that adds psychological stress. Studies show that a lot of the women become depressed and cannot do their jobs properly anymore and they especially don't feel like they have many career options. And all of that creates added stress in one's everyday life."

What is it?

Anyone today with access to the Internet can easily find out what constitutes sexual harassment. There is even an entry on German Wikipedia, according to which, "sexual harassment is a form of harassment which especially targets a person's gender." Nonetheless, there seem to be misunderstandings as to what it really is. When the March 3 poll was conducted, the respondents were first asked whether they had ever experienced sexual harassment. Only 17 percent of women and seven percent of men said that they had been. But when the poll asked more specific questions based on examples, it found that well over half of respondents had in fact experienced some form of it. The poll also found that around 50 percent of people didn't know where to report such incidents at work.

"Victims must seek help and employers must facilitate this," said the head of the federal anti-discrimination office Christine Lüders. "But it seems that staff departments in various public and private sector companies are not aware of this," she added. So to spread awareness, her office has devoted itself to the "equal rights for every gender" campaign this year, which will put on a number of events to get the message out there.

To seek help and be bullied or to shut up?

Bettina Burkart, who has worked as Deutsche Welle's equality and diversity officer for the past six years, said she found it "quite startling" that so many people didn't know that their employer was legally obligated to protect them from sexual harassment.

Another reason cases go unreported is because whether or not a woman actually feels threatened by a particular act of sexual harassment is subjective, especially when it comes in the form of remarks, or jokes, rather than overt physical advances. "I feel that a lot of young women just tend to shrug their shoulders and tell themselves it's nothing. And that won't help improve the situation," Burkart explained.

Seeking out help also can be problematic for other reasons. The study found men sexually harass women in lower positions to their own - an indication that these men are misusing their positions of authority. People with temporary contracts, along with employees worried about contract extensions, are less likely to report such matters for fear of losing their jobs.

If they do end up reporting a case, there is also the possibility that they will be bullied and ostracized by their colleagues. "Yes, this is extremely difficult," Burkart said. "Especially when it comes to joking around, I think men have been quite successful at creating an atmosphere that when women complain, they are put down as prima donnas or killjoys. And it is difficult to defend oneself against this."

A cultural problem

So in many ways, sexual harassment is a self-perpetuating cultural problem. And it's "not restricted to any generation," Wizorek said. "We can't just expect the problem to die out; older generations are role models. And when it comes down to it, the problem is still widely accepted." And even parents, she said, do things unwittingly that encourage this behavior. She said sexual harassment and discrimination were therefore parts of a larger problem that must be "tackled collectively as a society. Because sexism is a structural problem."

A case in point for this structural problem, feminists will argue, was a recent labor court ruling that perpetrators of sexual harassment need not be fired from their jobs - a ruling that sent "a fatal message," according to Wizorek. She argues that there must be consequences. "It must not be put down to 'oh, men can't control themselves. Woops.' A message has to be sent. Because if in the end, the perpetrator is more likely to stay at a company that the victim, and people keep telling her, 'oh it wasn't that bad,' that sends a fatal message to the entire company."

Here, in one of her Twitter campaign tweets, Wizorek says, "I'll never understand the 'I like being a woman' argument. I like it, too, but that doesn't mean I have to like discrimination."

Collective and loud

Overall, the situation is slowly improving. "This isn't like the 1950s anymore," Wizorek said. "We have made progress and that is good, but we must recognize that we are nowhere near the end of the road and there are still problems."

A lot of times, sexism is common knowledge. "I've heard the rumors. I know that there are certain sexist people. Everyone knows. But no one comes and complains. I think this is a question of society and solidarity. The more women who say, 'that's unacceptable and we want that to change,' the more likely it is to change," Burkart said. "And today there is awareness about what is and what is not acceptable." But we have to do it collectively and we have to be louder.

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