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Sexual harassment in the German workplace

Arthur Sullivan
November 2, 2017

Sexual harassment in the workplace has been a serious issue for many years in Germany and beyond, yet has remained largely taboo. Will recent events prompt a major cultural shift?

Kampagne #MeToo
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

Have you ever been sexually harassed at work? What constitutes sexual harassment — would you know it if you saw it? Would you speak out if it happened to you or to someone else?

These are not questions you expect to hear around the water cooler. Yet such questions are being asked out loud in Germany and beyond as the issue of workplace sexual harassment, long since seen as something of a taboo topic, emerges from the shadows.

The spate of allegations of sexual harassment, assault and rape made by scores of women against American film mogul Harvey Weinstein has pushed the issue into the international spotlight. The ‘me too' social media campaign, which has encouraged people to share their own experiences, has led to several more allegations against other prominent men.

Yet while the issue has gained a newfound media prominence, it is an all too familiar topic for those who have experienced it. In researching this article, two things quickly became clear. Many women — and some men, as it turns out — have experienced sexual harassment in a professional context, yet relatively few are willing to talk about it openly, let alone take legal action.

The strong arm of the law – and the harasser

Christine Lüders, the director of the German Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency, says many victims don't dare to make sexual harassment public. "They are afraid to lose their job, of receiving the blame themselves and being accused of damaging the reputation of a colleague or boss," she told DW.

"We also found out in a survey that many employees are poorly informed about their rights. Eight out of 10 do not know that their employer is required to protect them from sexual harassment in the workplace, and many employers do not seem to be aware of this duty either."

Bildergalerie Diskriminierung
In her work as the director of the German Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency, Christine Lüders has tackled the issue of workplace harassment for years and women's reluctance to talk is something she is very familiar with.Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Nonetheless, German law is quite strong when it comes to workplace sexual harassment. The 'General Equal Treatment Act', introduced in 2006, grants employees considerable rights and makes clear precisely what constitutes sexual harassment.

Beyond the most obvious and serious cases involving physical assault or worse, sexual harassment in the workplace, according to the law, means: unwanted physical contact, leering, lewd looks, sexual comments, sexist jokes, or the displaying of pornographic material. The legal obligation on the part of employers to deal with allegations appropriately and to protect employees is also clear, yet there are still 'legal gaps' that need to be closed, according to Christine Lüders.

One is the fact that bringing a claim of sexual harassment before the courts currently must happen within two months of it taking place. Lüders says this should be extended to six months as victims need time to consider taking legal action, particularly if they are traumatized or concerned about job security. Another gap is the fact that the law currently protects people working at universities but not students harassed by university employees.

Christina Stockfisch, a specialist in gender equality legislation at the DGB, a German trade union confederation which represents over six million workers, also would like to see some improvements.

"We want to have a collective right to file an action so that a trade union can take proceedings against employers in the cases of sexual harassment," she told DW. "So far, it is up to the individual to do so but we demand a collective right to take an action."

'You definitely do hear some nasty things'

The law is one thing but culture — and the reality of workplace sexual harassment — is another.

Laura (name changed) worked for 10 years in a male-dominated profession, as a pilot at one of Germany's largest airline groups. Although she never experienced sexual harassment herself, she does recall plenty of "patronising" behaviour, including from passengers making jokey comments and asking to have their picture taken with her simply because she was a young, female pilot.

While she felt that her professional role as a pilot largely insulated her from sexual remarks from fellow pilots, she did notice the sexist way some of her male colleagues spoke to cabin crew.

"You definitely do hear some nasty things there and those were totally sexual — stuff I'm sure you can imagine." While she heard and saw plenty of things that "crossed the line", she also felt that occasionally there was an over-sensitivity on the part of some colleagues.

"Sometimes I thought people took some remarks or jokes too personally. They thought, 'I'm in this male domain and I have to always watch out'. I do think it can be that sometimes you're perhaps too uptight about things."

Christine Lüders says that the issue is sometimes too easily played down as anything from 'a misunderstanding' to 'flirting' or 'a compliment' and that there is still a widespread view that those who report it are 'weak' or 'over-sensitive'.

"The difference is very clear," she says. "If a sexualized behavior is unwanted and offends the dignity of the victim, then it is sexual harassment and nothing else. Studies show that both men and women are actually quite aware of the difference."

Raise awareness, break the taboo

There are many studies that show the prevalence of sexual harassment in Germany, in the workplace and beyond. A 2015 study by the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency found that between one-third and half of all women in the workplace had experienced forms of sexual harassment.

Read more: Half of women in Germany victim of sexual harassment, survey

One of the more revealing parts of the study was that many men have also experienced workplace sexual harassment, whether that be through hearing the ‘macho', sexist remarks of other colleagues, or through suffering direct harassment themselves, almost exclusively from male perpetrators.

"We know from surveys that especially homosexual and bisexual men as well as transgender persons have a high risk of being sexually harassed," says Lüders.

For her, and for Christina Stockfisch, there is a much work to be done across German society to more effectively deal with the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. Perhaps most important in their view is to improve general awareness among workers and employers — firstly around what constitutes sexual harassment, so that it is clearly identified when it occurs or else prevented before it occurs, and secondly around the rights and obligations of workers and employers once it does occur.

Recent events suggest that cultural change is already underway. Many more people may be saying ‘me too' in the months ahead.

Sexual harassment in the workplace