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Equal Pay Day

March 21, 2009

Women in Germany earn nearly a quarter less than men, compared to an average of 17 percent in the rest of Europe. Equal Pay Day is observed to draw attention to the persistent discrepancy.

A business woman
The salary gap still hasn't closed for German womenImage: picture-alliance/chromorange

It's not by chance that Equal Pay Day is held on March 20 in Germany. This is the date up to which German women on average had to work this year, in addition to last year, to earn as much as their male counterparts did in 2008.

Although the "same salary for the same work" policy has been part of German law for more than 30 years, the pay gap between genders continues to exist.

The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) has been publishing figures on salary disparity between European men and women for a few years, and Germany ranks third among the 27 EU members. The salary gap between men and women who perform the same jobs is only higher in Estonia and Cyprus.

The discrepancy between non-skilled workers is the narrowest and the widest gap is between highly-qualified workers at up to 35 percent.

Hard to grasp

Ursula von der Leyen (CDU)
Von der Leyen is also puzzled by the salary discrepanciesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Germany's Minister for Family Affairs Ursula von der Leyen gave a specific example, noting that, despite the fact that they are equally capable of taking blood, changing beds and measuring fevers, "female nurses receive 100 euros ($135) less a month than male nurses."

"I simply can't explain it," she added.

The phenomenon has prompted the Business and Professional Women's Foundation to protest openly. They have adopted the symbol of the red bag used by the US sister organization, so that "numbers in the black will arise from bags in the red," said Dagmar Terbeznik of the German branch of the Business and Professional Women's Foundation.

The reasons why equal work is still not rewarded with equal pay in Germany are numerous. Studies have shown that German women place greater emphasis on the quality of their work and the working atmosphere rather than on salary.

"The tax system in Germany encourages women to take a part-time job when their husband earns more than them," Astrid Ziegler, a researcher at the WSI social economics institute in Dusseldorf, told AFP news agency.

In addition, a shortage of day-care options and the fact that schools are not open all day make it difficult for women to combine a job with family life, she added.

Traditional roles

Career mother with baby
There is a shortage of daycare and pre-school options in GermanyImage: picture-alliance / Lehtikuva

But it is also known that factors such as performance-based salaries and free working arrangements also contribute to keeping women's salaries below those of their male counterparts. Many German families still observe tradition roles, with men as the primary breadwinners.

Silke Anger from the German Institute for Economic Research has been studying the problem of unpaid work for a long time. She developed the following thesis: Housework makes women poor. "Energy that is invested in house work is then missing at work," said the economist. "Those who iron and do the laundry at home and do the shopping don't have the energy for gainful employment."

Anger suspects that some employers offer married women smaller salaries from the outset. Human resources bosses often assume that these women have to divide their energy between their careers and their household.

Time for government intervention?

A wad of euros exchanging hands
German companies are not open about their salary policiesImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The Business and Professional Women's Foundation has said that, among other things, a lack of transparency in German companies is responsible for the wage differences. In many companies, it is even recommended to employees that they refrain from speaking about what they earn.

The Foundation, however wants German companies to be obligated -- as is the case in forerunner Sweden -- to disclose how much their employees earn. Women's salary negotiations can then be conducted in a more goal-oriented manner with this kind of information serving as the foundation for the discussions.

Many politicians also say it is time to put the pressure on companies. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) has recently agreed on a program that advances a legal quota for members on a company's board of directors and "discrimination checks" for contracts.

"The time for voluntary measures by companies is over," said party group leader Christel Humme.