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Different pay

Johanna Schmeller / mll
November 20, 2013

Women earn 25 percent less than men, according to statistics, and there are many jobs which they would never have a chance of getting. Would a quota help?

Tanja Dittmar and her fire engine
Image: DW/J. Schmeller

There are now two changing rooms in the fire station - one for men, one for women - and Tanja Dittmar refers to one of them as "my kingdom." She has 223 male colleagues in the fire department of the town of Mülheim in western Germany, and only one female colleague. Altogether in Germany, only 1 percent of firefighters are women.

Anyone who wants to fight fires and rescue the injured has to undergo a physical examination to test strength and stamina. There's no difference between the requirements for men and women, and Dittmar - 1.65 meters (5 feet 5 inches) tall and weighing 60 kilograms (132 pounds) - did the necessary training and made it.

Dittmar studied architecture, but after she graduated, she remembered how much she'd enjoyed her old membership of a voluntary fire brigade. That led her into a civil service career in a field that has even fewer women in it than the police. She's 40 years old now, and she'll have to keep training for the rest of her life to keep up. But she earns the same money as the men, and has the same chances of promotion.

Systematic discrimination

In the private economy, though, things are different. In Germany, according to the Equal Pay Initiative, there's a 25 percent pay gap between women and men. Other researchers have other figures: the Cologne Institute for Economic Research, which is close to employers, says the difference is only 1 percent.

According to the sociologist Jutta Allmendinger, the two figures are based on different data: "The more factors one includes," she says, "the closer the two wages come together, but the further away one gets from the reality of women's lives."

One pair of women's legs in a row of men's legs Copyright: imago/Sven Simon
Only very few women have senior positionsImage: imago/Sven Simon

For example, if someone only works part-time because of family commitments, then, even if they get the same hourly rate, they are likely to end up poor when they retire.

Women are also often employed in smaller companies, work in lower graded jobs and lose out on seniority because of the time they take off to look after their families. But, according to Allmendinger's figures, even if you ignore all these issues, and just compare two people doing the same job under the same conditions, there's still a difference of 7 percent in pay.

"I never had the feeling that I was deliberately disadvantaged," says Karen Heumann, a prominent advertising executive with the German company Thjnk. "It's only later that one realizes that, in fact, that's what was happening. For example, if you're drinking a glass of wine with a former colleague and he tells you how he asked for something and how he got it, you suddenly realize that you lost out. I think that's partly because I asked for less."

Women's quota

According to the negotiators working on the policies of the new German grand coalition government, everything will be different when they take office. Manuela Schwesig for the Social Democrats and Annette Widmann-Mauz for the Christian Democrats announced on Tuesday (18.11.2013) that there'll be a quota for women in senior executive positions, which should help to deal with the career breaks which women experience. In just two years, a third of the supervisory board of every large public company will have to be a woman. Such companies will also have to set out "binding targets" to increase the participation of women. There are further measures to help integrate family and work life; they represent a minimal consensus between the image of the traditional family held by the Christian Democrats and the Social Democratic ideal of a welfare state.

Manuela Schwesig and Annette Widmann-Mauz Photo: Wolfgang Kumm/dpa
Schwesig (left) and Widmann-Mauz have agreed on a women's quota in big companiesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Heumann says she used not to be in favor of a quota, but she's changed her mind. She studied in France and she had a picture of her own future which was linked with her image of "the French woman with the little car and a baguette under her arm who collects the children from the kindergarten." But then she came back to Germany, where she began "to think about where I stand professionally as a woman."

Experts say that change will come about only with the appropriate policies. Allmendinger rejects the argument that, because more people will be reaching retirement age in the next few years, women will automatically take on leadership roles.

"Women are already better qualified than men," she says. "And this is not the first generation in which that's the case. This is the third. If we don't substantially reduce the difference between paid and unpaid work, we will never solve the problem. It won't just happen as a result of natural growth: we need a new labor policy framework."

No showers, no poems

Some fire stations don't have separate showers for men and women, says Tanja Dittmar, and then you have to have a sign on the door saying that there's a woman in there right now. The mood in the team only suffers when management tries to relieve the burden on the women too much - when they say, "The girl doesn't have to do that." That's when the men complain a bit.

She doesn't see that as discrimination: "I can't be bothered with such things," she says. "If someone panics and jumps and is lying on the sidewalk with a broken skull, that's when you need a thick skin - not in the office."

The fire department is a hierarchical system with orders and obedience, and the tone is sometimes a bit rough. "That's OK," says Dittmar. "If you're working in a man's job, you have to accept that you won't be meeting the others for afternoon tea and poetry reading on a Sunday afternoon."

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