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Johanna Schmeller / ji
January 28, 2013

When it comes to equality, Germany is a long way from being where it should be, writes DW's Johanna Schmeller.


Did he or didn't he? A year ago, Rainer Brüderle crossed a red line with a quip to a journalist 40 years his junior. At least that's what they say. His party, the pro-business FDP, hasn't denied the claim, Brüderle hasn't apologized, and his party colleagues have been adding to the debate with their own statements: Fellow FDP politician Wolfgang Kubicki told the biggest German popular newspaper that he had also "hit on" female journalists, and he said he would now make a conscious effort to keep a distance between himself and this group of people. That's what you call a win-win situation, which needs no further comment… but the case of Brüderle is different: He was recently named as a front-runner for the FDP in the forthcoming general elections. That was why this case, made public by the journalist Laura Himmelreich in the Stern news magazine, has come up now, even though it happened over a year ago. And in Germany the matter has caused a long-overdue public debate - which is what makes Brüderle's silence all the more embarrassing.

In the same breath another story is also being discussed openly - one which first appeared in the news magazine Der Spiegel. One of their female reporters, Annett Meiritz, has defended herself against sexist hostility in the Pirate party, which allegedly accused her of getting access to party information by offering sexual services. On the web, she's been defamed as a "prostitute." The reporter quickly made the story public: "I don't run to the anti-discrimination office at every stupid remark," she wrote in a cool, well thought-through essay in the Spiegel. It's a shame that she had to emphasize that at all. But she's right when she assumes that that's what she had to do in this case.

Outcry on social media

In terms of sexual equality, Germany is no where near as far as it could be, and the #Aufschrei (outcry) debate on twitter, makes that only too clear. More than 60,000 tweets have been published on the subject of macho-ism and sexism.

Jokes with sexual connotations - like Brüderle's remark about Himmelreich's "Dirndl" cleavage, referring to a traditional dress with a revealing neckline - hardly leave anyone blushing like a schoolgirl thanks to the feminist movement in Germany of the 1970s, and that's a good thing. And the idea that there might be relationships between all income, education and age barriers doesn't seriously shock anyone anymore, and that's almost better. At least that's something.

But what's crucial is the context in which some of these "toilet wall jokes" are used. In this instance, a not particularly original observation was made on an occasion when it could create an unfair hierarchy between the two partners in the conversation. But there should be no hierarchy in a professional back ground briefing or an interview - the two sides should be able to regard themselves as equals.

Should we ignore sexism?

"Can't we just shrug our shoulders and walk away?" asks a male colleague. The answer is we could. But why should we? Who really wants to advise serious journalists like Himmelreich or Meiritz to close their informal conversations with journalists earlier in the evening, so that they don't end up with verbal breakdowns by the person sitting opposite them? Society has standards so that there are limits to the spontaneous empathy - of perhaps bored, perhaps tired, perhaps no-longer quite so sober men of power.

Himmelreich is currently being accused of having sat too long on her information, as if that would take away her personal shock and moral outrage. That's an error. It wasn't that she hesitated,, but she had to weigh up her information against the world at large, and wait, so that her personal discomfort would not be turned into the subject of an earlier debate.

Provided the facts are true, the question arises: Has this almost 70-year-old man, who clearly has a weak sense of self-control, really got leadership qualities?

Himmelreich has initiated a discussion at a time which couldn't be better: just now there's a lively debate going on about who should take the leading positions in the next election, scheduled for September.

Rational, calculated, poised, strategic - terms like these have not yet been used about Himmelreich's report in the German press. Perhaps that's because one doesn't expect such attributes from a young, blonde woman. We really are a long way from being where we should be on this.

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