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Women in German parliament at a 19-year low

Kate Brady Berlin
September 29, 2017

For 12 years, Angela Merkel has governed Germany. But one woman at the top is not enough. The arrival of the far-right AfD is just one reason why only 31 percent of deputies in the next Bundestag will be women.

Angela Merkel at the Women's Union
'Strong women. Strong Germany': But where are they?Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Steffen

When German women were given the vote back in 1919, even the most optimistic of suffragettes would likely have considered the idea of a female chancellor — and, what's more, one who's about to begin her fourth term in office — little more than a pipe dream.

Nearly a century later, that's a reality, but Germany's parliament has a problem.

Until 1987, the percentage of women in the Bundestag was never higher than 10 percent, but it continually increased over the past 30 years. That changed on Sunday.

Despite a record number of six parties and 706 MPs entering the Bundestag after the September 24 election, the proportion of female lawmakers has dropped from 37.1 percent in the previous parliament to 31 percent, marking a 19-year low.

Graph showing number of women in each German parliamentary group

In Germany's 19th parliament, 491 seats will be occupied by men, while only 218 will be held by women.

Read more: German election: World reacts to Merkel victory, AfD rise

'A big setback'

The sudden decrease of female MPs in the Bundestag can be largely attributed to the arrival of two parties that had failed to meet the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament in the 2013 election: the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), who are making their comeback this year, and the newcomers, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Eighteen of the FDP's parliamentary seats will go to women and 62 to men, while 11 of the AfD's seats will be taken by women and 83 by men.

Read more:AfD: What you need to know about Germany's far-right party

Helga Lukoschat, the chairwoman of the European Academy for Women (EAF), said the combination of fewer women in the Bundestag and the arrival of the far-right AfD was worrying.

"I find this a big setback because for the first time (since reunification) a party has entered the German Bundestag which represents very conservative positions which also concern equality," Lukoschat said. "The AfD is mainly voted for by men. And is also predominantly represented by men within the party."

Infografik AfD Bundestagswahl 2017 Ost West Männer Frauen ENG

Case for quotas?

With only 49 female MPs for their 246 parliamentary seats, Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sibling party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), are hardly examples of improved gender equality either.

In contrast, the Social Democrats (SPD), Left and Greens all have proportions of women higher than 40 percent — 42 percent, 54 percent and 60.9 percent, respectively — for their parliamentary deputies.

Read more: Germany's Green party: How it evolved

The higher percentages of women in the left-wing parties is by no means a fluke. Each party has a quota to fill, ranging from 40 to 50 percent, with the Greens being the first to introduce such a measure in 1986.

Shying away from a compulsory quota, for 21 years the CDU has had a so-called women's quorum, or nonbinding recommendation that the proportion reach 30 percent — a number that the party fell well short of this time around. The FDP and AfD, meanwhile, have blocked any form of quota altogether.

Need for a parity law

Family, Women and Youth Minister Katarina Barley (SPD), who will step down from her post once a new government is formed, told DW that the Bundestag is in desperate need of a parity law.

"It doesn't work otherwise," Barley said. "If the parties don't introduce quotas themselves, we will have to think about a law like in France, where you force political parties to nominate men and women equally."

French Cabinet
An equality law has been in place in the French parliament for 16 yearsImage: Reuters/P. Wojazer

Germany's neighbor adopted the parity law to promote equal access for men and women to elected positions in June 2000.

Cultural problem

In Germany, the underrepresentation of women in parliament is just a high-profile snapshot of the country's cultural and societal mindset on issues of gender equality and stereotyped gender roles.

Read more:Report: Women in Germany still facing gender injustices

"The position of women in Germany seems to be not as naturally equal as in other countries," Barley said.

"We have this motherhood myth," she added. "We have to get better there. You can be a mother and you can, for example, be a manager or a politician at the same time."

Read more: Opinion: Bundestag adopts gender equality law – so what!

Barley called for increased unity and support among women.

"You see that when it comes to women with a family and women without a family, they sometimes fight against each other rather than together," Barley said. "And that is something that we women will have to change."

"Women's solidarity is something beautiful," she added, "but it's not always there."

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