Opinion: German bureaucracy discriminates against women | Opinion | DW | 28.08.2019

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Opinion: German bureaucracy discriminates against women

"Men first" is the premise in German officialdom, which treats heterosexual women as appendages to their husbands. Germany has a long way to go to make gender equality a bureaucratic reality, writes DW's Nancy Isenson.

A few days ago my husband and I received mail from the land registry about our house. The letter I got told me the results of a survey of our property. The letter my husband got also told him the results, and that he would need to pay €300 for the assessment. We are joint owners. My surname comes ahead of his in the alphabet. So why had he been billed for the survey and not me, or both of us?

I ranted a bit to my husband about sexism, while he complained to me about having to pay for a survey we hadn't requested. Later I spent a restless night rehearsing in my mind what I would say when I got Herr K., the land registry official who had written our letters, on the phone.

Read more: #MeToo, German style

Though it made me angry that a bureaucrat would put me in second place simply because I am a woman married to a man, it did not surprise me; our bank, the immigration service and the tax office have all treated me that way.

For years equality ministers, politicians and lawyers have criticized the government for perpetuating gender stereotypes by stipulating that the husband's name must come first on tax forms and that he is responsible for a couple's taxes, regardless of whether his wife earns more or is even the primary breadwinner.

Nancy Isenson

DW's Nancy Isenson

A Finance Ministry spokeswoman said the order of names is "an organizational measure," but she also acknowledged the need for gender-neutral forms, something that could not be implemented "in the short term" due to the massive changes it would require to the electronic filing procedure.

Maria Wersig, president of the German Women Lawyers' Association, says there hasn't been a serious effort to tackle the subject. Her group flags the issue whenever there's an opportunity, and each time is confronted with the question: Don't we as a society have bigger problems?

Read more: Germany marks Equal Pay Day with gender wage gap discussion

"I'm not arguing there aren't other problems," Wersig says, "but symbolism is also one of them. You have to be active on many levels if you genuinely want to achieve equal opportunities and equal living conditions for women and men. And it is not banal — just like pink toys [for girls] — because they simply shape realities."

Overhaul gave hope

So it looked like progress when, after same-sex marriage and registered partnerships were legalized, the government updated the tax forms to allow those couples to file joint tax returns with their names in alphabetical order. Strangely, the bureaucrats didn't extend the privilege to married heterosexuals.

Earlier this year journalist Fabian A. Scherschel generated a rash of articles in German media after blogging about his wife's experience with the tax office. She had called to find out why it was taking so long for the return she had filed in both of their names to be processed. The local officials told her that their computer system had crashed because she had put her own name first when she filed. They were forced to enter the data manually, and that had slowed things down. They asked her not to do it again.

The German Basic Law: equality

"Why can't it be a matter of course that we say: We will do it differently — because society now is also totally different?" Maria Wersig asked. "Instead, people say, 'Women, deal with it,' in social networks, and the [finance] ministry can sit it out without any consequences."

The implication is that women should suck it up — after all, we should be used to discrimination, seeing as it is a fact of life for women around the world.

Read more: Who were the pioneers of Germany's women's movement?

It was hard to be cross when Herr K. turned out to be friendly and even sympathetic. He told me he was married too, that of course I wasn't simply an appendage to my husband, and that it was his colleague's job to decide in whose name to issue the bill. And that man, K. said, was "older."

He must be quite a bit older. Gender equality was cemented in the Basic Law, Germany's constitution, more than half a century ago, in 1958.

Apparently Germany still doesn't take it seriously.

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