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."
Barbara Steinhagen, 36, said age-old prejudices die hard. A former international marketing manager for a music company in Berlin, Steinhagen said she was promised a promotion that was abruptly given to a man when she announced she was pregnant. Her discrimination complaint, still pending, is the first of its kind to reach the German supreme court.
"A boss shouldn't be allowed to judge if you can handle a child and a job," Steinhagen said. In her view, when a male boss sees a pregnant employee he thinks: "Her child will be up at night and she will be tired, or she won't be able to travel as much, or she won't have her full attention on work."
Steinhagen also said that laws aimed at protecting women can wind up hurting them. German employers are legally obligated to rehire women who go on maternity leave, even if they stay at home for as long as three years. But to get around the law, firms avoid hiring women or promoting them to high positions, she said.
"The laws are really backfiring," she said.
In dozens of interviews with German men and women, nearly all agreed that many employers were openly reluctant to hire and promote women of childbearing age.
Ralf Braun, 40, an Internet marketer, said it is only natural for a boss to think that a woman "at some point will get pregnant and stop working," causing problems for the workplace. He predicted that there would never be complete gender equality at work: "It just can't be 50-50. Even in 50 years, I don't think it will be equal for women at work."
Many men said they believed children and families benefited when women stayed at home instead of working.
Hans Meyer, 72, a retired engineer who used to run a Hamburg toolmaking company with 1,500 employees, said the "silent majority of women want to stay home and have families."
"The public view today is only concerned with the well-being of women, not of children," Meyer said. "I believe that in the first three years, a mother should first and foremost be available for her child."
Stefan Linz, 32, said it makes "no sense" to fight for equality on the job because men and women are not the same. As he balanced a five-gallon plastic jug on his left shoulder, making his rounds to deliver water to Hamburg offices, he said a woman wouldn't be strong enough to do what he does.
"We should cherish the differences," Linz said. "Women are the ones who get pregnant. Families are falling apart because women don't stay home. Isn't it time we just face the facts?"
Merkel's government has made a priority of trying to improve conditions for working mothers, including a multibillion-dollar plan to expand child care and a new effort to encourage fathers to take paternity leave.
In eastern Germany, which was a communist state until 1990, women were encouraged to work and an extensive child-care network helped them. Today, in the united country, working parents complain that child-care centers are scarce in the west and far more common in the east.
The derogatory words "raven mother" are heard mostly in western Germany. The term means one who abandons her young in the nest to go off and pursue a career. "It's a really ugly term. People say this about you behind your back," said Miriam Holzapfel, 33, a university graduate and mother of two in Hamburg who lost her job after she had a baby. "My friends in the east don't have this kind of social pressure."
* * *
Jonik lives in a one-bedroom apartment in a working-class section of Hamburg, a rainy city on the North Sea where container ships and trucks line the harbor. She shares the home with her husband of 36 years, Wolfgang, a gardener who is out of work.
A small cat prowls the compact apartment, which is decorated with a collection of ceramic kittens. Colorful flowers and plants adorn a tiny balcony over a pleasant street south of the Elbe River.
Jonik left school at 16, trained to work in the restaurant business, then moved to Hamburg, looking for a job.
She chose not to have children. She had bills to pay, she said, and in her younger days it was even harder to hold a job and raise children. But with 1 p.m. school dismissals still the routine even for older children in Germany, she said, she continues to feel for working moms.
Over the years, Jonik said, an occasional stolen peek at a man's paycheck seemed to confirm suspicions women were not earning as much. But she became certain only last year, when employees formed a workers council, which was legally entitled to see all salaries.
"It was by no means fair," Jonik said, reading glasses hanging around her neck. "What less pay means is that you are of less value."
Klaus Ihns, 62, a thoughtful, bespectacled, warehouse man who heads the workers council, said he immediately spotted the problem. "Soon as I looked down the list, alarms went off," he said.
Speaking on a drizzly day near the company's busy loading docks -- where 18-wheelers arrive with car parts, toys and tea -- Ihns said many women, included Jonik, were classified as office workers even though they were doing manual work, which normally commands higher pay.
When he told the company, he said, nothing changed, so the council sued to get raises the women deserved. "They were doing absolutely the same work as men," he said.
A 2006 anti-discrimination law gave the councils the right to sue on behalf of workers. That was a key change, Ihns said, because it made things easier for women reluctant to pursue litigation on their own.
Klaus Bertelsmann, the lawyer who represented Jonik and other women, said Suederelbe Logistik saved "a lot of money over years and years and years" by systematically paying women less.
Just as the lawsuit was about to go to trial, the company settled out of court, giving Jonik a 13 percent pay raise. Now she earns 200 euros a month more, or just over $250 at current exchange rates. She also received a one-time lump-sum payment of 1,500 euros. Thirty-six other female employees involved in the suit won higher salaries, too.
"This is not about men and women," said Hans-Dieter Kirschstein, director of Suederelbe Logistik. In a brief telephone interview, he said that he did not want to discuss the case but that his company did not discriminate against women. He suggested the lawsuit was settled because of concern about adverse publicity. Training, not gender, accounted for any pay differences, he said.
In Germany, employers often explain the gender pay gap by citing qualifications and seniority. They also say men negotiate harder for raises.
Many also argue that women are drawn to "pink-collar" jobs, such as nursing and teaching, that generally pay less than fields dominated by men, such as high-tech and corporate business. But women here are increasingly asking whether women are drawn to low-paying fields, or whether those fields are low-paying because they are predominantly female.
Sitting in her living room, Jonik said the settlement money has made a huge difference. After paying for rent, utilities and food from her salary -- about $26,000 a year -- she has few splurges. But now, she said, she is enjoying the comfort "of being able to save a little each month for retirement."
As she headed back into the warehouse on her bicycle for a late shift that would end at 10 p.m., she said the "waters have smoothed" at work since the lawsuit. Many of her male co-workers are happy for the women, although none would agree to be interviewed as they came or left the loading dock one recent day, or even in calls afterwards.
But Jonik said that a few scars from her little skirmish in the gender wars remain.
"Every once in a while, when there is a heavy box -- before, a man would have said, 'I'll get it.' Now he might say, 'You get it.' "
"Men," she said, shaking her head.
Special correspondent Shannon Smiley contributed to this report.