In Affluent Germany, Women Still Confront Traditional Bias

In Germany, women are often paid less than men and say discrimination is still common in the workplace. Some feel new mothers should stay home with their children instead of returning to work. Video by Mary Jordan/The Washington Post, Editor: Francine Uenuma/
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 26, 2008

HAMBURG -- Margret Jonik, a tall redhead with a nagging smoker's cough, has been pushing cargo around a warehouse floor in steel-toed shoes for 21 years.

Jonik has given her aching back and more than a third of her life to Suederelbe Logistik on the Hamburg harbor front. So she was furious last year, she said, when she discovered that her male colleagues were being paid higher wages for exactly the same work.

In the past, her anger might have come to nothing in a German business world dominated by men. But by using a recently enacted anti-discrimination law, Jonik and dozens of female co-workers were able to sue the company, which settled out of court and agreed to raise the women's pay.

"I am very happy, not just for myself but also for other women in Germany," said Jonik, 57, a quiet pioneer in a workplace battle that women are waging in many of the world's wealthiest nations, including the United States.

The global struggle for women's equality often focuses on the developing world, where women still lack some of the most basic of rights, including education and protection from rape. But in many affluent countries, women's rights advocates say, gender bias endures. It is just harder to see.

German law requires that men and women be treated equally; labor contracts that once specified that women be paid 80 percent of the male rate are long gone. The government is headed by a woman, Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Yet many Germans, male and female, continue to hold to the traditional German notion that a woman's focus should be "Kinder, Kueche, Kirche" -- children, kitchen, church.

Women who do work often find stubborn barriers. German government statistics show that men typically earn 24 percent more per hour than women, among the widest gender pay gaps in Europe. A recent study comparing men and women in the same jobs at the same firms concluded that women earned 88 percent of what men did.

"This is a significant difference," said study co-author Thomas Hinz, a professor at the University of Konstanz, adding that he found that "real discrimination is a factor" in the pay gap.

Women rarely hold top posts in German business. There is only one woman among the 200 people who sit on the executive boards of the top 30 companies on the German DAX stock index, according to Christian Rickens, editor of Manager magazine. Those companies include global powers such as Lufthansa, Volkswagen, Bayer and Adidas.

"One is a pretty frightening number," Rickens said. "You can't say this is just because women choose to stay home with their children; one-third of women with university degrees don't have children."

"No company will tell you that you won't get promoted because you are a woman," Rickens said. But the people who run companies are men, he said, and they "like to surround themselves with people they trust, who think like they do -- people like themselves."

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