‘Why I believe Merkel is failing women’

Mutti: 37% of women voted for Merkel’s party, compared with 30% of men. © Getty
by Josie Cox

The business editor of The Independent, she frequently reports from Germany and has written widely on the country’s politics. She has also worked for The Wall Street Journal and Reuters.

Should Angela Merkel start calling herself a feminist? The German chancellor has refused to engage in gender politics in her 12 years in charge. Josie Cox believes she is failing women.

In search of an obvious role model for today’s modern feminist, one should have to look no further than the Chancellor of Germany. As she wins a fourth term, it is easy to describe Angela Merkel as the ultimate eradicator of gender stereotypes – indeed, of accepted norms altogether.

She has shown that a female physical chemist can hold her own in a field dominated by traditionalist – even chauvinist – male lawyers and historians.

And yet, although her success should be bulletproof evidence that gender need not play a role in the pursuit of power, she may be failing Germany in an obvious way – and one that could come so naturally to her.

Between the country’s most powerful job and the lowest level of work is a vast space where men outnumber women

Ever since bursting onto the public stage, childless Merkel has shunned the feminist label and gender politics has idled at the bottom of her priority list. Yes, trying to detract attention from the fact that you’re not a man might have been a winning strategy for women in politics in the 1980s and 1990s, but the world has changed. And so should our attitudes.

Progressive as Germany may be economically and technologically, it is still a slave to institutional sexism and unconscious bias. A failure by the world’s most powerful woman to address that is quite frankly depressing.

Remember that statistic about fewer women being FTSE 100 bosses than men named John? Well, it applies in Germany too (except “John” becomes “Thomas” or “Michael”) but it runs deeper than that and progress has been feeble.

In 2013, Germany’s parliament rejected a law similar to legislation already enforced in other European countries that imposed gender quotas on the supervisory boards of companies. The push was blocked by Merkel’s CDU party.

Eventually, in 2015, Germany did pass legislation requiring big corporations to allocate 30% of seats on non-executive boards to women, but females remain grossly underrepresented. Just over 12% of board positions at Germany’s 30 biggest publicly listed companies are currently held by women.

Social expectations that women should give up work to care for children are also much more dominant in Germany than in the UK, for example. There’s a stigma attached to being a working mother, summed up in the still commonly used term Rabenmutter – or “raven mother”.

Merkel became Chancellor in 2005 so a generation of Germans won’t remember a time when their head of state was not a woman. But between the country’s most powerful job and the lowest level of work is a vast space where men outnumber women.

The term “feminist” still carries very negative connotations. It conjures up an image of bra-burning protesters, enraged to the point of violence at the male-led institution, something that few who simply believe that the sexes should be treated and paid equally, would necessarily want to identify with.

In her next term, Merkel has the opportunity to help feminism go mainstream. With 12 years of chancellorship under her belt and an enduring support base, she no longer has to worry about alienating members of the public. She should be over that.

Despite her “Mutti” (“Mummy”) nickname, Merkel is known in Germany for being private, emotionless and playing her cards close to her chest. Last month centre-left rival candidate Martin Schulz even called her aloof and out of touch.

Addressing an issue that keeps women in Germany up at night won’t soften her credibility. But it could be an easy way for her to enhance an already unrivalled legacy, especially among the voters of tomorrow, feminist icon or not.

This is an edited version of a longer piece, reprinted with kind permission. For the full essay see the second link in Become An Expert.

You Decide

  1. Should Angela Merkel adopt a more feminist stance?


  1. Class debate: “This house believes that Angela Merkel’s gender is irrelevant.”

Word Watch

FTSE 100 bosses
As of March 2017, there were 17 chief executives called John of FTSE 100 companies, while just seven bosses were women. Men called “David” or “Dave” also outnumbered women 2:1.
Merkel’s party is the Christian Democratic Union.
This makes Merkel the longest serving leader in Western Europe.
Martin Schulz
Schulz’s Social Democratic Party suffered a terrible result in Sunday’s general election, winning just 20% of the vote. They have since refused to continue their coalition government with Merkel’s party.

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