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Gender Equality Turns 50

July 1, 2008

Germany on Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of a law enshrining equality of the sexes. But DW's Ulrike Mast-Kirschning says despite some successes, real gender equality still remains a dream.


The political battle for gender equality is over 100 years old in Germany. Its most famous activist was Clara Zetkin, the founder of the International Women's Movement and International Women's Day on March 8. Zetkin's main argument was that only equal economic opportunities would lead to women enjoying the same status as men.

Half a century later, the enshrining of gender equality in the constitution of the young Federal Republic of Germany was followed by the logical translation of the same into civil law.

For women, it was only a modest step. After mastering a host of challenges and the difficult job of rebuilding a nation after two world wars, in the 1950s women were banished to the kitchen.

Men were considered the natural heads of households and no married woman could take up work without the signature of her husband. The romantic notion of the family from the 19th century -- the man as the breadwinner of the family and the woman as the guardian of home and hearth -- was meant to bring normality in a time which was anything but.

That, it appeared, fuelled increasingly entrenched gender roles and the division of labor in German society. And the law enshrining gender equality which came into force on July 1, 1958 did nothing to change that.

Without doubt, these traditional gender roles have been steadily eroding since the 1970s. On a rhetorical level, gender parity has long been achieved in Germany.

At the same time, the once widely accepted gender stereotypes continue to pose the biggest hurdle in the working world.

Overtime, flexible working hours and organizing daycare -- all that doesn't go together. It's the women once again who have to manage to balance work and children. The fairer sex are seldom found in the corridors of power in the business world, their share of top-notch jobs remains abysmal and unchanged.

In fact, for years they've been gradually withdrawing from professional life. And when it comes to pay, working women on average earn a fourth less than their male colleagues. Germany is certainly no role model in Europe for gender equality -- the country is ranked fourth from bottom on a recent EU equality survey.

It seems the working world is the last bastion for many men in Germany to defend their privileges of power and influence, income and career. Men who take advantage of parental leave benefits for new fathers in Germany to take care of their children will certainly attest to women's plight in the working world because there's hardly a boss who looks favorably upon it -- the argument is that taking time off from work for childcare hurts the career just as it does with women.

It doesn't help either that Germany has a female chancellor who, like successive governments before her, has no political concept that could spark a social transformation and pave the way to real gender equality. Angela Merkel lacks the courage of Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero who not only scored points during elections with a modern law on women's equality but also appointed a woman as defense minister and made gender parity one of his priorities.

Merkel also lacks the determination seen in the Norwegian government that set up a women's quota for listed companies and is thus gradually changing male hierarchies.

The majority of Germany's voters however seem to be ahead of their political leaders on the subject. In a recent survey, some 80 percent said gender equality had had a positive impact on German society.

Those who refuse to see it that way are usually those who fear they will have to share their patriarchal privileges in future. In fact, they have nothing to lose -- real equal participation in society would be a good investment in the future.

Ulrike Mast-Kirschning is an editor at DW-RADIO (sp)