A quota could help women break that glass ceiling | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 05.03.2015
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A quota could help women break that glass ceiling

In Germany today, women are still discriminated against, according to a new study. The implementation of quotas on supervisory boards could help improve the situation, but won't be enough, says DW's Bettina Burkart.

DW: The German Bundestag is voting on a quota for women. This debate has been going on for awhile now, and the thought is that a quota could lessen the disparities between men and women in their professional careers. Do you think it is necessary?

Bettina Burkart: I am absolutely for a quota, albeit one that is limited for a certain amount of time and then can hopefully be scrapped later on, because it will no longer be needed. At my age, I have seen enough to be able to attest to the fact that the glass ceiling does exist, that male networks from a certain managerial level remain among themselves and there is a strong male defensive to keep women out. That's why at first, we can only make any progress with a quota, which, hopefully, will become a fact of workplace life and will later no longer be necessary.

Women on average still receive less pay than men for the same jobs. Is there not any danger that if a quota for women is introduced, companies will see this as an opportunity for cheaper labor?

GMF Foto Bettina Burkart

DW's Bettina Burkart

One thing is clear: the quota law that is being discussed only concerns a few hundred positions. That is just a small fraction of jobs. It is about boards of directors, not about the masses. So it won't really help that much. One thing, though, is that women simply have to learn how to negotiate better. And I hope that in the end, women will benefit from the shortage of skilled professionals that Germany is facing. Because if there is a real shortage and positions can't be filled, you can't just continue to give preferential treatment to men; instead, you search for skilled people, whether male or female.

There is a movement in Germany against things like a quota for women or female parking spots - which have been around for awhile - because they say this leads to the discrimination of men. Do they have a point?

I am very involved in this topic and have heard this argument before. I think it is a sneaky counterattack from the male-dominated world - unfortunately, with a number of women at the very front of it, such as the former family minister Christine Schröder. These people also say that boys are discriminated against at school and all that. But reality is much different. Men are not discriminated against. And when it comes to getting more women into positions in male-dominated fields, they are only hired if they have the same qualifications. It's not like they're hiring women just for the sake of hiring them. The women being hired have to be at least as good as the other male applicants.

There is not only discrimination against women, am I right?

Yes, that's true. But there is still a structural discrimination against women. Structures that are still in place, structures that mean many positions are difficult to attain for women.

They say that women theoretically have the same chances as me, but when it comes down to it, especially when it comes to rising up in the ranks to top managerial positions, at a certain point, women hit the infamous glass ceiling. It is another factor that women are disadvantaged when it comes to family life, when they take a break from their careers, and then go back to work, they don't receive sufficient support to pick up where they left off in their careers.

And we all know about the gender pay gap, which is still around 22 percent. Women are simply paid less. This is simply all in the societal structures we have here.

Of course men are underrepresented in some occupations as well. But it's because they are so-called "typical female professions" which pay less and carry a poorer image with them so men don't want to do them.

There are some attempts to lessen the disparities between men and women. Men, for example, are choosing to take parental leave so it doesn't fall on mothers alone. Do you see this helping to improve the status of women?

I would say that it is starting to improve. Men are slowly starting to realize their parental responsibilities, and things like paternal leave are reinforced by financial incentives. And I think that among the younger generation, there are more men who from the very start want to have a different relationship to their children. It is also somewhat dependent on which branch one works in. In factories, or traditional male jobs, where mostly men work, it is still not seen as very cool or manly. So I think there's still a long way to go. And men simply have to start demanding this, too. They have to learn what women are doing too and demand their rights.

Pay gaps are easy to prove, but sexual harassment or discrimination in the workplace are much more difficult because it is often a matter of interpretation, is it not?

Yes. And many women don't know that it is, in fact, about their own perception. I as a woman, determine what I see as harassment. And when a woman finds something harassing in a sexual manner, it is up to her to say 'I don't like that and I won't tolerate it.' When I read the recent study, I was shocked that there was such a high number of women who didn't know about their rights and that there are people they can talk to.

Sexual harassment seems to be quite a tenacious problem, partially because it doesn't always have to be overt and physical; when colleagues are joking around amongst each other, it is easy for some innuendo or other to slip out. But if someone reports a case, there is the possibility that they will be picked on or bullied by their colleagues at work for "tattling." Such behavior is hard to change, isn't it?

This is a difficult problem. 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. On the other hand, 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. In my professional career, I have heard a number of stories. There are known sexists out there. Yet no one comes and says, "this and that is happening and it is not traumatizing or anything, but I feel it is unnecessary and shouldn't be going on."

If a number of people came, that would enable me to tackle the issue in a different way. And so, like many other societal issues, I think it's really a question of solidarity. The more women come together and speak about an issue and say that "that's not on, we don't want that and we don't think that's funny," the easier it becomes. And today, there is a basic concept about what is not acceptable. And men who make such jokes will start to understand that they are not so funny. But women have to do it collectively, and they have to be louder about it.

The German federal anti-discrimination office has chosen the year 2015 to put on a number of events to create awareness for sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Do you think this will help mitigate these issues in the workplace?

I think we still have a long way to go. On the other hand, if you look at it globally, we are quite privileged here, if you compare it to how poorly women are treated in other parts of the world. But I think awareness does still need to be spread. I also think it is good that there will be events to publicize this problem. This is still a large problem in our society and I believe it will continue to be one for a long time to come because there are a number of other factors that contribute to violence against women. But I think it is good that there is a campaign to bring awareness to the issue and call it out, name it, and stop it from being swept under the rug.

Dr. Bettina Burkhart has worked as Deutsche Welle's equality and diversity officer for the past six years.

Interview conducted by Sarah Berning