Was will eine Frau eigentlich? On discussing Gender Equality in Germany.

Gender equality is a pivotal topic in many of the deliberative workshops we have implemented in the last couple of years in Germany.[1] Originally, German authorities considered it important to discuss the rights of women especially with refugees and – within this community – with Muslim men. After having discussed it at length with more than 400 natives as well, we think that the topic is extremely relevant for almost everybody currently living in Germany.

In this article, I first give an overview of how we typically discuss the topic and which issues are raised during the workshops. Important topics are, of course, the causes of the inequalities we observe and the possibilities and limits regarding a more equal distribution of positions, professions and life-chances. After that I present some of the survey data that we have collected so far.

A proliferation of Rights

To inform the deliberation, we usually first shortly discuss with our workshop-participants the development of women rights in Germany.[2] This historical overview is already helpful because it shows just how recently many rights have been declared as well as how quickly those rights proliferated. This should make Germans and other Westerners a bit humble when they discuss this topic with representatives of other cultures. We do not have many reasons to present ourselves as champions of gender equality. And this is certainly not the case when we discuss to what extent these rights also have been put into practice.

At the same time, the historical overview illustrates how quickly cultures and their views and customs regarding gender can change, also when these views and customs are supposed to be grounded on holy books like the Bible. Apparently, holy books need to be interpreted and interpretations are adjusted to changing circumstances, views and insights. Migrants that currently have different views on gender should be reassured that no culture completely collapses and no identity is completely lost when interpretations, views and customs change.

Thus, in short, only since 1918 do women have voting rights in Germany. A year later, women were allowed to study at a university. In West-Germany, until 1958 married men were legally the head of the family: they had the last say in family matters, and had the right to run and use the belongings and incomes of their spouses. Related, only since 1962 married women are allowed to open a bank account of their own without first having to ask permission of their husband. Only since 1969 have women not required the formal consent of their husbands to get a job. And only since 1997 can women (and men) report their spouse to the police for rape.

The legal situation in the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) was better, in theory. In the Bundesrepublik Deutschland (BRD) the economic, social and juridical policies were based on the ideal of a family consisting of a male breadwinner and a female housewife. To a high extent, this is still the case. In the DDR, all men and women were supposed to prepare themselves for a career outside the household and to enter the labor market. The motivation for this was ideological, economic and demographic – men and women were not just considered equal for normative, political reasons, women were also simply needed in the workforce, particularly because many DDR-citizens were fleeing to the West.

Consequently, in the DDR, 91,3% of the female population had a job in 1986. At that time, this was only about 50% In the Bundesrepublik Deutschland.[3] This higher level of employment in the DDR did not mean, though, that women were equally represented at the top of political, bureaucratic or economic organizations, that women were generally doing the same kind of jobs as men, or that the men were taking a bigger share of the work in the household than their counterparts in the West. For many DDR-women, equality simply meant working double-shift.

Employment rates of both sexes

Another fruitful issue to stir discussions on gender equality is the employment rate of both sexes. Figures of the Statistisches Bundesamt show that between 1991 and 2017 the employment rate of men first went down a bit but has currently reached a comparable level to before (about 83%). The employment rate of women went up from about 58 to 75%.[4]

We normally ask our participants how to explain this and whether this development can be seen as progress.

A first caveat that is frequently mentioned, is that women more often work part-time: 47% of the women and only 9% of the men that currently work have a part-time job. When asked why they do not work full-time, the most common reason given by women is the need to care for children, while for men it is to take part in further education.[5]

Consequently, although the rates for women go up, the situation is not as equal as it appears. Why do the rates go up? Many reasons are usually discussed: women have the formal right to study and to work and are getting more and more aware of these rights; growing numbers of women see employment as an important condition of emancipation and independence; more men acknowledge these rights and routes of emancipation; the welfare state and contraception reduced the size of families and women have more time and energy to work outside the household; sexist prejudices regarding the abilities and competences of women are slowly on the decline; stagnating or declining household incomes and increasing consumption aspirations make it imperative that both spouses have a paid job.

Can we unequivocally applaud this development? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, more women on the job means that more women are able to use their talents, develop a career of their own, and become socially and financially independent: in a word, to emancipate. For society at large, it means that many skills and abilities which have so far been underutilized are now available for use. This enriches society in many different ways, of which the economic aspect is only one.

Stress society

On the other hand, when men are not reducing their paid working time but are also not increasing their share of caring for children and the elderly or performing household tasks, do we then not run the risk of ending up in a stress-society where everything is devoted to work? Do we not repeat bad experiences already made in the DDR?

Data collected by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) show indeed that the employment rate of women grows much faster than the participation of men in the household and in childcare. The chart below presents the development between 1992 and 2016.[6] The line at the bottom reflects the time that men in a relationship spend during the week on child care, administration, cooking, cleaning, washing, gardening and maintenance. Of all the time spend in a household on these activities, men contributed in 2016 about 38%. Fourteen years earlier, this was about 32%. In the same period, the employment rate of women went up from 60 to 80%.

The contribution of men does not rise because they spend more time on household and childcare in absolute terms, but because women spend less and less. Since the total time spent decreases, the relative part of men increases. German houses, consequently, are getting dirtier, and children are receiving less attention.[7]

The fact that the reproduction rate of Germans has declined considerably until recently[8], might be related to the above: having two careers in one household is hard to combine with a family with children. This is certainly the case in (West-) Germany where many of the rules, regulations and customs as well as much of the organization of society is still based on the presumption that women stay home after giving birth. Demographic problems – a population getting older and older und increasingly struggling with the payment of pensions and the care of the elderly – are strongly related to gender issues and can only be solved in the last context.

The workshop-discussions, especially those with social workers and civil volunteers, regularly go in the direction of a need to fundamentally reconsider the way we have organized our societies and the vision of (wo)men and human flourishing lying partly beneath this organization. Do we all really want to work full-time? What do we want to accomplish or achieve with that? What is “work” anyway? Could we not have created too many “bullshit jobs” in our societies, that might bring an income, but at the same time are socially rather meaningless, even according to the people doing these jobs?[9] Could it be that there is a lot of “work” that our societies do not monetarily reward yet still contributes more significantly to human flourishing than the activities which our societies currently reward? Might it be that at present women especially have these unpaid “jobs”?

What consequences has our preoccupation with (paid) work for children, families, relatives, friends, neighbors and communities and, consequently, for human well-being?[10] Can one still have a career in the present social-economic constellation when one works part-time, or does part-time work means that one has implicitly given up ambitions to reach higher positions? How many hours should one work to perform well? To what extent is working 40 hours or many hours more, really necessary to be or become a high-performer? Could working long hours not just be a particular (unhealthy) life-style, an unfounded, McKinsey-inspired myth? Might it be that working less frantically actually improves productivity, innovation and progress?

When fathers and mothers should share more of the burden of having children, what is the best method to get more fathers to take on more responsibilities? Should we not stop seeing children as a “burden”, and instead enjoy them as a fundamental enrichment of life? Are there limitations in this field because mothers are more predisposed to caring? How come?

The last-named issue brings the discussions in our workshop to the question of why women and men often currently have different occupations and reach different positions in the organizations that employ them.

Women in managerial positions

Many statistics show that German women are far less represented at the top of organizations than men. Below is a statistic of the Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaftliches Institut of the Hans-Böckler-Stiftung from 2018, presenting the percentages of men and women working in the private and public sector and in managerial positions in both sectors.[11] A division is made between a first and second management level. The Chief Executive Officers, the members of the executive boards and the company or branch managers belong to the first level, all other managers to the second one.

The graph shows that 61% of all people working in the public sector in 2016 were female. Despite this strong overrepresentation, only 34% of the people at the first management level were women. For the managers at the second level this percentage was 44.

Although the percentage of females of all the people working in the private sector is smaller (44), they are relatively better represented at the second managerial level (40). Their presence at the first level (26%) again also drops considerably, though. Still, the private sector offers more opportunities for women to reach second level 40/44 = 0.91 versus 44/61 = 0.72) and first level positions (26/44 = 0.59 versus 34/61 = 0.56) than the public sector.

In the last two decades the numbers have hardly increased in Germany: Between 2004 and 2016 the percentage of women at the first management level increased only from 24 to 26 and at the second level from 33 to 40. The percentage of women in the total workforce rose in this period from 41 to 44.

Did East-Germany benefit from its DDR-past when it comes to the emancipation of women? In comparison to contemporary West-Germany, in the East more women work in the private sector (48% of the total workforce in the East, 39% in the West). At the second management level, East-German women are represented almost equally (47%). But at the first level their underrepresentation is almost as high as in West-Germany (30 versus 25%).

In comparison to other countries, Germany is not truly leading either. Obviously, international comparisons are always difficult to make because of different definitions of “management positions” and of distinct organizational structures. Nevertheless, a comparative study of Credit Suisse[12] in 2016 indicates that when it comes to the presence of women in the board of governance of private corporations, Germany (20,1%) is lagging in comparison to countries like the United Kingdom (23%), the Netherlands (26%), Belgium (28%), Denmark (29%), Sweden (24%), France (34%), and Norway (47%). Still, according to this study, Germany is doing better than South Africa (20%), Israel (18%), the USA (17%), Turkey (9%), Brazil (7%) or Indonesia (6%).

Male versus female professions

Connected to the above, German women and men clearly practice different professions. The table below (based on data from 2009 or 2010) gives an indication.[13]

Exercised profession Percentage of women Percentage of men
Clinic assistant 99 1
Kindergartenteacher 96 4
Hairdresser 93 7
Care giver 87 13
Nurse 86 14
Social worker 80 20
Teacher 76 24
Farmer 22 78
Aviation professions 21.1 78.9
Commercial agent 20.4 79.6
Metalworker 19 81
Physicist, Physics Engineer, Mathematician 16.7 83.3
Train operator 8.7 91.3
Motor vehicle driver 4.3 95.7
Housepainter 3.7 96.3
Carpenter 3.1 96.9
Electrician 2.7 97.3
Crane operator 1.9 98.1
Welder 1.7 98.3
Tiler 0.6 99.4
Bricklayer 0.5 99.5
Roofer 0.5 99.5

When we look at the figures of people that recently (in 2017) finished an on-the-job education for a profession, we see not always dramatic changes.[14] For instance, 98% of the medical assistants were female, 79% of the hairdressers, 13% of the carpenters (which is a real change), 4% of the car mechanics, 2% of the electricians.

Still, in some domains, the presence of men is slowly growing. The percentage of male Kindergarten teachers, for instance, went up from 3.1 in 2007 to 5.8 in 2017.[15] There are big differences between the German states (Bundesländer), though. In states like Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen the percentages are currently around 10%, whereas in Bayern it is only 2.9.[16]

As the table above shows, also teachers are predominantly female in contemporary Germany. This has not always been the case. The feminization of teaching is in fact still under way. Thus, in primary schools 84.4% of the German teachers were female in 2011 (the average of all OECD-countries was in that year 82.1%). Every year this percentage has gone up since then, reaching 87.1% in 2016 (for the OECD the percentage rose to 87.7). In the first years of the secondary school the percentage went up from 64.4 to 66.7 (in the OECD from 67.6 to 68.6). And in the second phase of the secondary school it went up from 52.1 to 53.8 in Germany and from 57.6 to 59.3 in the OECD. Only at the university level women are still a minority, a position that also did not really change (from 39.3 to 39.1).[17]

Gender change in occupations

An important question is to what extent the choice of occupation is culturally biased. Do men or women go for particular jobs because of a specific genetic predisposition, or do they only do so because they are socialized in this direction? When occupations that are dominated by males or females in Germany, in other countries are dominated by the other sex instead, culture apparently plays a decisive role. The same conclusion we can draw when professions that were once ruled by men or women, have been taken over by the other sex.

An instance of this last option we already discussed above: the feminization of teaching. Nathan Yau (2019) gives an overview of other professions in the United States. He shows that between 1950 and 2015 “there were 82 occupations out of 459 that flipped from male to female and/or female to male. Out of the 82, 72 shifted from male to female majority.”[18] Examples of the last category are “opticians” “bartenders”, “human resources assistants”, “bill and account collectors”, “mail clerks”, “bakers”, “compliance officers”, “financial managers”, “writers and authors”,  “law enforcement workers”, and “prepress technicians and workers”.

Instances of occupations that were once dominated by men but saw a considerable proliferation of women, are: “bus and ambulance drivers and attendants”, “jewelers and precious stone and metal workers”, “physical scientists”, “architects”, “drafters”, “industrial engineers”, “barbers”, “atmospheric and space scientists”, “clergy”, “mathematical science occupations”, “healthcare practitioners and technical occupations”, “optometrists”, “securities, commodities, and financial services sales agents”, “shipping, receiving, and traffic clerks”, “chemical engineers”, and “lawyers and judges, magistrates, and other judicial workers”.

Examples of male occupations where we can hardly observe a growth in the presence of female workers, are: “carpenters”, “construction equipment operators”, “construction workers”, “electrical and electronics engineers”, “railroad brake, signal, and switch operators”, “plant and system operators”, “aircraft mechanics and service technicians”, “maintenance workers, machinery”, “materials engineers”, “industrial truck and tractor operators”, “cleaners of vehicles and equipment”, “brickmasons, blockmasons, and stonemasons”, “earth drillers”, “aerospace engineers”, “truck drivers”, “painters”, “small engine mechanics”, “forest and conservation workers”, “civil engineers”, “locomotive engineers and operators”, “tool and die makers”, “ship and boat captains and operators”, “pipelayers”, “plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters”.

Professions with a female overrepresentation that did not change, are, among others: “health technologists and technicians”, “medical records and health information technicians”, “clinical laboratory technologists and technicians”, “health diagnosing and treating practitioners”, “nurses”, “dental hygienist”, “hairdressers”, “cashiers”, “elementary and middle school teachers”, “special education teachers”, “childcare workers”, “secretaries and administrative assistants”, “personal care aides”, “social workers”, “receptionists and information clerks”, and “library assistants”.

This list suggests, among others, that technology coupled with “caring” attracts more women than technology without this component. Besides, “male” jobs are in some domains increasingly done by women, but men do less often try to get into “female” jobs. One explanation of this might be that women opt for “male jobs” because these are better paid, which cannot be said of most “female jobs” (cf. Cohen 2013; Hesmondhalgh and Baker 2015).

Can we observe that in particular countries men or women are doing other jobs than in Germany? A very crude indicator could be the percentages of men and women working in the agricultural, service and industry sector. Figures of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) show that in 2015, 32.7% of all the working men in the OECD and 11.8% of all the women were employed in the industrial sector.[19] For Germany these percentages were 39.8 and 13.9 respectively. When we would take working in industry as a sign of emancipation of women, then Germany is doing slightly better than comparable countries like Belgium (32.5/8.2), Finland (33.9/8.7), France (30.2/9.4), Sweden (28.5/6.9), United Kingdom (28.1/7.6) and the USA (29.5/8.9). Countries like Estonia (43.1/17.5), Hungary (39.9/18.9), Japan (33.8/14.6), Mexico (30.2/16.6) or Slovenia (42.9/18) are a bit more “emancipated”, when we use this indicator, than Germany, but the differences between all these countries are small.

Paradoxically, the more rights and opportunities women have, the less they opt for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (“STEM”) (Khazan 2018). In countries like Turkey, Tunisia and Algeria, that score low on the Global Gender Gap Index of the World Economic Forum, many more women graduate in STEM studies (up to 40%) than in countries like Finland, Norway, Sweden or the Netherlands (where the percentage is around 20), that score high on this index.

The explanation probably is that when women feel the need to emancipate, they study STEM because this offers a better chance to become financially independent. When they have more rights and opportunities, and when welfare states give them a minimum of economic security, they are more able to follow their own interests. On average, the sexes have comparable scores in science and math, but women read more and better than men (why is that?). Consequently, when they have the option, more than men they choose professions in domains that are related to “reading”. The last professions have a strong social, cultural, or artistic component.

Why are women underrepresented?

The next obvious question is how all these statistics could be explained. An explanation is not just required when we would, on the basis of their qualities, expect more women at the top of organizations or within particular professions, but also when we would assume that the present situation is in any way “normal” or “natural”.

Regularly, our workshop participants did not see any need to explain, for instance, the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions. They considered the statistics as proof of given differences between the sexes. Since men and women differ biologically, they end up in different professions and positions. The assumed genetically given differences were often that women were less rational and organized than men and had less leadership abilities and ambitions. Men are more competitive and are more motivated to get to the top than women. Women or mothers are also much more into caring than men, and consequently prefer educations and jobs related to caring. Men, on the other hand, are builders, technicians and engineers. There is not much we can do here.

Workshops with adolescents in Hamburg and Brandenburg, and a workshop with 32 long-term unemployed former-DDR citizens were examples. Many participants in the last workshop, especially several female ones, did not consider it a great idea to have more female managers. Women were considered to be too emotional, too irrational and to have less abilities to make clear and thorough decisions. Many participants had the idea that if a corporation’s board of governors had ten members, only one or maybe two of them should be female. In their East-German experience, women fight nastier than men, and while fighting often forget to make necessary decisions. They preferred to work together with men. [20]

Many women in West-Germany expressed comparable preferences for male colleagues. A civil servant and social worker in her sixties in a workshop in the state Hessen said that in her experience men were “more pragmatic, more collegial and more goal-oriented”. More than men, women were mobbing and harassing each other. She was aware, she declared, that she was not making herself very popular with this statement, but still, this is how she felt. Some female participants in their thirties heavily attacked her for this ungrounded, sexist generalization. Whereupon some older women said in reply, that they were exactly proving the point.

Assuming that there are differences between average men and women (which is not to say that all men or all women have more of a certain quality than the opposite sex), and acknowledging that most current organizations are dominated by men and so reflect to a higher extent “male” traits or qualities, might it be that average women fit less well in these current organizations than men? Might it be that to be accepted by the males that dominate the upper layers of current organizations, women often need to be more “male” than the males themselves? And might this partly explain the observation of many women in our workshops (the men usually remain politely silent on this topic) that the female managers they had to deal with in their lives, were now and then less pleasant personalities than their male counterparts?

A related observation was made by some female participants of a workshop in Hessen: women do not want to work in top positions (even when they are offered these positions) because they do not want to adjust to the culture prevalent at this level. This culture assumes a sixty-hour workweek, a constant availability and an all compassing commitment. Women are not willing to live up to this kind of “management ideology”. They have other interests and ambitions as well. The present corporations have been formed by men and therefore men can function better in these environments. We should not ask women to adjust to these “corporate cultures”, the participants said, we should change these cultures.

This brings us back to the question after the underrepresentation of women at the top of organizations and in particular professions: Many workshop-participants first of all pointed to differences in socialization. From the very first start, boys and girls receive diverging open and hidden messages regarding their appropriate interests, ambitions, professions and roles and their talents and abilities. These messages come from their parents, families, friends, acquaintances, teachers, coaches, all possible people surrounding them, but also from cultural sources like newspapers, books, movies, social media, or just the language. Often the messages are direct and explicit, but more frequently they are indirect, subtle and implicit. Sexist prejudices ingrain cultures and people that are encultured at a specific time and place are most of the time not or hardly aware of their prejudices. That makes it even harder to address them.

To give a personal example of this subtleness: my youngest son recently entered primary school. The first day, I brought and collected him together with my wife. The second day, I brought him on my own. We entered class, and the young female teacher asks my son, without even glancing at me: “But Jonah, where is your mother?”[21]

Widespread sexist prejudices lead to institutional discrimination: institutions also have a culture where women or men are structurally ascribed particular traits, interests and roles and are denied particular rights. Consequently, men are discriminated as well. For example, in all of the cases in 2009 that a German court took a decision on which parent would get custody after divorce, the family court decided in favor of the father only 6% of the time.[22] Family courts and surrounding institutions like the Youth Welfare Office operate in Germany mainly on the sexist assumption that children are raised by mothers and that the role of fathers is limited to providing the necessary financial assets.[23]

Another important reason why women are hired less frequently at higher positions is the so called “glass ceiling”. This could be regarded as an instance of institutional discrimination. Since men are already at the top and are in the position to decide who enters their ranks, they can collectively discriminate against women. Every time they have to choose between men or women, or between men with a comparable or a different social background, they go for those candidates who are like them. Consciously or unconsciously, they play it safe. In case of candidates with comparable sexual, social and cultural backgrounds, they know what to expect, they know there will be a much bigger chance that there will be a common understanding and that the cooperation will be smooth. With women, LGBTQ-people or with heterosexual males with a different social and cultural background, you never know. Therefore, it is better to stay among ourselves.

Obviously, when the conviction is widespread that women are less qualified than men, then the men have even more explicit reasons to keep women out of their domain.

A next cause of the underrepresentation of women at top position that is often considered, is the sad fact that only women are able to have babies. The average age at which women in Germany have their first child is about 29. Statistics of the Statistisches Bundesamt (see the graph below) show that up to that age, the differences in hourly wage are already manifest, but not yet very large.[24] In the next ten years, though, the gap surges. Since most of the time women stay home or work part-time after children are born, they fall behind in their career and can never catch up again: at 40, the differences are set and do not change anymore. The differences in earnings are made most clear when one compares the hourly wages instead of the total wages, which reflect that women often work part-time.

Part-time work is especially damaging for careers, because people working part-time receive less information from their full-time working colleagues about everything that is going on at the workplace (cf. Vorsamer 2014). They are less part of the network, they belong less to “us” or “the firm”, and they are assumed to be less committed. Consequently, when higher jobs and positions are available, they are easier overlooked.

How would the world look like without discrimination and prejudiced socialization?

Say, as a society we would finally manage to raise, socialize and educate our children in an absolutely gender-neutral way and we would manage not to discriminate against any women or men in any sphere of life. Would both sexes than be equally represented in all positions and professions? Or would there still be genetic qualities that would cause the average man and woman to follow, to some extent, different interests, ambitions and careers?

This question often stirred a lot of stress, agony and sometimes even aggression, especially among German social workers, social science students and integration-volunteers. Asking the question was already suggesting, some complained, that there were relevant differences between men and women, and some were violently denying this. In their view, when there would be no prejudiced socialization and no discrimination, all positions and professions would see a perfectly equal distribution between the sexes. Related to this, they regularly also refused to talk about any group, category or class, stating that only “persons” existed and that respect required that we would only talk about specific individuals. Since the participants in question often had an education in social work, sociology or a comparable academic discipline, this was a remarkable position.[25]

Many others struggled to avoid the question and tried to divert the discussion with sometimes endless rows of anecdotes and examples (“I have a friend who has three daughters and a son, and two daughters are studying engineering and the son is an alcoholic”). Or they kept repeating that it would be impossible to create such a gender-neutral society and that consequently the entire question was irrelevant.

Most often, it was first defended that there are no relevant differences between both sexes and that all professions and positions would be equally shared in a gender-neutral society. And then, at some point, one or more, most of the time somewhat older men and especially women, would intervene, and cautiously bring up that, maybe, there are differences that are biologically ingrained.

In, for instance, Sachsen-Anhalt we had a deliberation with 15 older citizens volunteering in integration-work that developed along this line. At first the position was defended that men and women are totally equal and that all differences that now exist, are caused by socialization and discrimination. But when we asked how society and gender roles would look like when we would finally manage to raise our children in a gender-neutral way and would finally manage to get all possible forms of discrimination out of our world, doubts started to kick in. Surely, we would have many more women in many professions and at many positions that are now dominated by men. But we would most likely not observe total equality between the sexes. Particular professions and positions would probably still attract more women than men, or vice versa, and these differences are probably explained by different genetic predispositions.

Along comparable lines a discussion developed in a workshop in Rheinland-Pfalz with a small group of well-educated, liberal professionals and volunteers. First it was defended that all differences are the complete product of socialization. Then a man in his late thirties, a director of a job-center, said that he believed that women are often more empathetic than men, and that they consequently have a tendency to choose caring professions and also are less prone to fight themselves to the top of hierarchies. It’s a tendency, he stressed. Obviously, there are many men that are more able to feel empathy towards others than many women, but generally, women have a higher capacity for this ability. He was then supported by an older nurse, who had made the same experiences in her life. Maybe the ability to have babies and to still babies furthers the ability of empathy, something that men develop to a lesser extent. The other participants thereupon did not really oppose this option. In several other workgroups, though, the reaction of the believers in equality, was so dismissive that the ones contemplating this possibility choose to remain silent. This was certainly the case in towns in Nordrhein-Westfalen and in Sachsen.

In the last town we had a workshop with about 18 volunteers and professionals. The workshop contained a big group of young social and youth workers of the Youth Welfare Office. The question whether, after we have left behind all sexist prejudices and socializations, all jobs and all positions would be equally divided between men and women, was repeated in the workshop in several different wordings by us and by several different participants, male and female. Nobody dared to answer the question. The five employees of the Youth Welfare Office attacked the statistics (what was the source? How were the data collected? Is it still up to date?), aggressively repeated over and over again that women were unfairly treated in our society, repeated that people were socialized, came up with all kinds of personal anecdotes showing that some individual women had become wonderful technicians, but simply refused to contemplate, not to mention, to answer the question. Superior contempt was everything they offered.

In a workshop with 18 mainly older, predominantly Protestant inspired participants in a provincial town in Nordrhein-Westfalen, differences between men and women were hardly acknowledged, too. The group pressure to deny any possible differences was that big that the few who cautiously tried to put forward that there might be differences that are not cultural, quickly decided to shut up. The discussion we tried to have on masculinity (“what is a man”) created a comparable awkward tautness. The concept of “man” was a creation of advertisement. There is no essence of manhood, the most outspoken participant, a clergywoman of about 55 declared, and nobody dared to confront her.[26]

Still, the older our participants, the more relaxed they often discussed the issue and the more they were tempted to ascribe diverging qualities to both sexes. In Rheinland-Pfalz, for instance, we had another very smooth workshop with ten well educated, world open women and one man. Two of the women wore scarves. They all worked in governmental agencies like the youth welfare office or were civil volunteers. Unlike in many other workshops, the question whether men and women had equal interests, talents or abilities, was for them not an issue at all: obviously there were important differences, the women were immediately proud to say. Women are generally more empathetic, more caring, and more prone to think about the common interest, than men. Likewise, they are less competitive and take less risks. Exactly for this reason more women are desperately needed at the top of companies and other organizations, one of the female volunteers, a retired management consultant, forcibly defended: they would bring in perspectives and values that nowadays are underrepresented and that would boost the performance of many companies and organizations.

Equal representation because men and woman have equal qualities or because women have important, different qualities?

Related to the issue above is the following one: Should we have an equal number of women in higher positions because they have equal qualities as men and so already fairness requires this? Or should we have more women in higher positions because they bring qualities that men frequently miss? Often this fundamental issue stays implicit.

An example is a recent study of the International Labour Organization. The authors write in their preface, without any explication:

Importantly, practising gender diversity is more than ensuring that human resources policies are adequately aligned. It is also about creating an inclusive, respectful culture that is not dominated by one gender and that delivers the diversity of thinking that women and men bring to the table. (ILO 2019: iv)

Using assumed different capabilities furthers, according to their study, the performance of corporations significantly:

The business case for gender diversity has been quantified and measured in numerous studies. Our own research reinforces and expands this evidence at the global scale – all enterprises stand to benefit from higher profitability and productivity; increased ability to attract and retain talent; greater creativity, innovation and openness; enhanced reputation; and the ability to better gauge consumer interest and demand. The benefits are not insignificant: nearly three out of four surveyed enterprises that cited improved bottom line indicated a profit increase of between 5 and 20 per cent. (ILO 2019: iii)

Assuming these observations are correct, then a 50/50 division of men and women, would not always be optimal. It could be that in specific branches specific qualities are wanted and that consequently the majority of the managers better be female, or male.

Some empirical findings in our own workshops[27]

At the beginning of our workshops we always ask our participants to fill in a survey. Since we cover a wide array of topics, only a limited number of questions is devoted to gender equality. Over the years we collected more and more data (we are now at 415 filled in questionnaires). Still, the numbers are too small to come to strong conclusions about, for instance, the entire German population or “Syrian” or Afghan” refugees. The biggest group we have (more than 200 respondents), consists of social workers, civil servants and civil volunteers that assist refugees and residents to integrate in German society. This group of respondents (“multiplicators”) is not representative for German citizens but (to some extent) for social workers, civil servants and civil volunteers that assist refugees and residents to integrate in German society. On top of that we have refugees (more than 100 respondents) from several different countries, schoolchildren of 14 to 17 years (46), and German citizens (“populists”) with a strong tendency to vote for rightwing populist parties (45).

We asked the participants to react to three statements that are related to the topic of this paper. The first was, Whether one gives women, homosexuals or minorities equal rights is a matter of cultural preference” (1 = completely disagree; 5 = completely agree). As might be expected, the multiplicators agreed the least with this statement (the mean was 2.05, Standard deviation 1.43). The male populist agreed the most (mean = 3.33; but n is only 13), more so than refugees (mean = 2.65, standard deviation = 1.76). Further, it turns are that women are more tempted to disagree than men, young people more than older people, and respondents from West-Germany more than those from East-Germany.

A second statement was, “There are professions which should only be done by men or women” (1 = completely disagree; 5 = completely agree). Again, the multiplicators agreed the least (mean = 1.66, standard deviation 1.43) and the (male and female) populists the most (mean = 3.06, standard deviation = 1.63), more so than the refugees (mean = 2.87, standard deviation = 1.61).

And a third statement was, “Women should have the same rights as men” (1 = completely disagree; 5 = completely agree). The multiplicators agreed the most (mean = 4.92, Standard deviation = 0.46), the male adolescents the least (mean = 3.68, standard deviation = 1.79, but n is only 26 and the wish to annoy the girls might have played a role here). Regarding this question too, the populists were believing less in gender equality than the refugees we surveyed.


One of the attractions of deliberation is that it lays bare the interconnectedness of many social and political issues as well as the hidden assumptions of many of our beliefs and customs. Discussions on democracy almost automatically lead to discussions on freedom, equality, solidarity or human rights, and vice versa. Deliberation on gender equality quickly end up into discussions on a variety of fundamental societal issues. Gender inequality soon turns out to be insolvable when one is not willing to address questions regarding the entire organization of our society and the vision of (wo)men and human flourishing lying partly beneath this organization. It is a much more explosive topic than many seem to be aware off.

The discussions we had so far, not only addressed questions regarding assumed differences between men and women or the possible explanations for the current disparities in social positions and professions. We also went into questions about the role that “work” should play in our life and society, the definition of “(paid) work”, the balance between work and career on the one hand, and family, children, social and communal activities and even sustainable development, on the other hand. Should emancipation just mean that all men and women are going to work full-time, or is it not time, for social, political, environmental and health reasons, to start thinking about a society based on other values than individualism, production, consumption and growth?

A lot of fundamental questions need to be answered when we want to realize gender equality. Was will eine Frau eigentlich? And what about these men? It is time we start thinking.


Cohen, Philip N. 2013. The persistence of gender segregation at work. Sociology Compass, pp.889-99.

Hesmondhalgh, David and Sarah Baker. 2015. Sex, gender and work segregation in the cultural ndustries. The Sociological Review. Vol.63, No. 1, pp.23-36.

International Labour Organization. 2019. The Business case for change. Women in Business and Management. Geneva. ILO: 2019

Khazan, Olga. 2018. The more gender equality, the fewer women in STEM. The Atlantic. February 18, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/02/the-more-gender-equality-the-fewer-women-in-stem/553592/?fbclid=IwAR3VbI8YBjCOHkqaeNyJB5Gv40R9EUiIcrAANMAvEVzttbR6Lebpecg2Pqc

Lane, Robert A. 2000. The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Statistisches Bundesamt. 2018. Internationale Bildungsindikatoren im Ländervergleich. https://statistik.thueringen.de/webshop/pdf/2018/60120_2018_01.pdf


Yau, Nathan. 2019. Most Female and Male Occupations since 1950. Flowingdata. https://flowingdata.com/2017/09/11/most-female-and-male-occupations-since-1950/?fbclid=IwAR1DEh5rGj_PtUkHotCqM2hqiAtYszYyw_TVW1dhQ_HOXxcT_5cvv4Y_4n0

Unece Statistical Database. Population and Gender. https://w3.unece.org/PXWeb2015/pxweb/en/STAT/STAT__30-GE__05-PublicAnddecision/

Vorsamer, Barbara. 2014. Die Unersetzlichen. Süddeutsche Zeitung. 06.03.2014. https://www.sueddeutsche.de/karriere/unterschiedlicher-verdienst-von-maennern-und-frauen-die-unersetzlichen-1.1905271


[1] Thanks to Mirjam Neebe for her comments on a first draft of this article. Thanks to Gabrielle Denman for her editing. And especially thanks to Isabel Navarro for sparring in many joyful discussions on the topic, for collecting literature and for analyzing our empirical data. All mistakes and sexist prejudices that remained in this article are exclusively my product.

[2] In this article, I differentiate between “men” and “women”. I am aware that there are people that feel differently and that not all men are “men” and not all women are “women”. I respect that and everybody can count on my solidarity. But most people understand what I am writing about when I use the concepts “men” and “women”. This understanding is reflected in the data and statistics that are collected in the world to describe the social positions of the two crude categories of humans that form the subject of this article. The arguments developed for a more emancipated and just society do apply to all humans.

[3] http://www.zeitklicks.de/ddr/zeitklicks/zeit/alltag/leben-in-der-ddr/frauen-in-der-ddr/ ; https://www.mdr.de/heute-im-osten/projekte/eure-geschichte/themen/alltag-nischenkultur/frauen/frauen158.html

[4] In 2017, the total employment rate in Germany was 83,1% and the difference between the rates of men and women 7,9%. In France, these number were 74,6 and 7,9 respectively; in Great Britain 83,4 and 10,3; in Italy 72,3 and 19,8; in Turkey 76,1 and 41,6; in Sweden 83,8 and 4; in Norway 80,2 and 4. http://www.bpb.de/nachschlagen/zahlen-und-fakten/europa/70593/erwerbstaetigkeit-nach-geschlecht

[5] https://www.destatis.de/Europa/DE/Publikationen/Bevoelkerung-Arbeit-Soziales/Arbeitsmarkt/broeschuere-arbeitsmark-blick-0010022189004.pdf?__blob=publicationFile.

[6] https://www.diw.de/documents/publikationen/73/diw_01.c.616021.de/19-10-3.pdf.

[7] The authors of the report conclude: „Um den Gender Care Gap zu verringern, sind deutliche Impulse aus der Politik nötig, damit Frauen und Männer in gleichem Umfang erwerbstätig sein können und Männer mehr Verantwortung im Bereich der unbezahl­ten Arbeit übernehmen. Die konstant geringe Beteiligung der Männer am Haushalt zeigt, dass ein genereller Kultur­ und Normenwandel in Bezug auf Hausarbeit und Kinder­betreuung nötig ist. Unterstützt werden könnte dieser unter anderem durch eine Ausweitung der Partnermonate beim Elterngeld, die das Engagement von Vätern in der Kinder­betreuung positiv beeinflussen.“

[8] In 2019, Germany ranked 168 (of 200 countries) in fertility rate: 1.586 child per woman. In France the rate was 1.852, in Sweden 1.85, in the United States 1.78 and in the United Kingdom 1.75. The high rates in France and Sweden are also the result of explicit governmental measures and policies to avoid the demographic problems Germany is soon going to have. The twenty-two countries top ranked are all African (Niger with 6.95 children per woman to Mauritania with 4,6 children per woman). At the bottom are Singapore (1.2), Taiwan (1.115) and South Korea (1.1). http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/total-fertility-rate/. Since 2015 the fertility rate is rising in Germany, though, also due to foreign born mothers (https://www.dw.com/en/germanys-fertility-rate-hits-43-year-high/a-43163756). The fertility rate in a developed country has to be about 2.1 to prevent a population from shrinking.

[9] The American anthropologists David Graeber researched in his “Bullshit Jobs: A theory” (2018) how many people in different countries considered their own job as meaningless or pointless in terms of the contribution their work offers for society and human welfare. The results were stunning: up to 40% of the surveyed people are of the opinion that if their job were to vanish, it would not make a difference to anyone. Obviously, when even the people themselves believe that what they are doing does not make any sense, then mental and social health are endangered.

[10] In his The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (2000) Robert Lane showed how the citizens of market democracies have been made to believe, that production, consumption and growth are existential essentials, and how these citizens in the process of implementing this ideal, slowly destroyed all those social, communal, cultural and family activities that, research shows, really contribute to our wellbeing. Consequently, on the basis of many indicators Lane shows how the well-being of Americans have been on the decline since the seventies. Europe is lagging but is moving in the same direction (cf. Blokland 2011: 330ff).

[11] https://www.boeckler.de/51383.htm#

[12] https://www.wgea.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/csri-gender-3000.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0D0d15eaQjfimALc56OcpYEQFmUtAFF5KNPF4_Ak4rKoGag9ELPTOA7q0

[13] https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/169431/umfrage/berufe-mit-hohem-frauenanteil/ ; https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liste_von_Frauenanteilen_in_der_Berufswelt

[14] https://www.boeckler.de/52370.htm#

[15] https://de.statista.com/infografik/14678/maennliche-paedagogische-fachkraefte-in-kitas/ file:///C:/Users/hansb/AppData/Local/Temp/MÄNNER%20IM%20KITA.pdf

[16] https://mika.koordination-maennerinkitas.de/forschung/maenneranteil-bundeslaender/

[17] Statistisches Bundesamt. 2018. Internationale Bildungsindikatoren im Ländervergleich. https://statistik.thueringen.de/webshop/pdf/2018/60120_2018_01.pdf

[18] https://flowingdata.com/2017/09/11/most-female-and-male-occupations-since-1950/?fbclid=IwAR1DEh5rGj_PtUkHotCqM2hqiAtYszYyw_TVW1dhQ_HOXxcT_5cvv4Y_4n0

[19] https://stats.oecd.org/index.aspx?queryid=54755#

[20] The overrepresentation of women in the caring professions they also considered natural and they did not expect that this would ever really change. Not surprisingly, to the survey question „There are professions which should only be done by men or women”, 4 of the 25 respondents “totally agreed” (5) and 6 “agreed” with this statement. 9 people “totally disagreed” (1), 1 “disagreed” and 5 were indecisive. The mean was 2.4.

[21] „Aber Arden, wo ist denn deine Mutter?“ My son patiently explained to his new teacher that he has a mother and a father, and that he can be brought or collected by the both of us. My son, let’s be clear, is a “Held der Emanzipation”.

[22] Statistisches Bundesamt. 2011. Justiz auf einen Blick. Wiesbaden, p.50.

[23] Tina Groll writes in her Und das Kind gehört zu Mama: „streiten sich die Eltern darüber, bei welchem Elternteil das Kind überwiegend wohnen soll, sprechen sich die Familiengerichte eher für die Mutter aus. Das liegt an den bisherigen rechtlichen Rahmenbedingungen, die sich stark an einem traditionellen Familienbild orientieren: Die Mutter kümmert sich um die Kinder, der Vater sorgt für Finanzen.“ Zeit-Online, 10 November 2017.

[24] Nevertheless, when in the family a decision is made about who stays home, the choice is also made for the mother since already at that age, she earns less than the father (who an average is also a bit older and so at a later stage in his career). For the income of the household it is better when the man goes to work.

[25]  I will publish a related article on the ideas in this group on freedom, individualism and cultural relativism.

[26] „Männlichkeit ist ein Bild aus der Werbung. Es gibt keine Essence von Männlichkeit.“ 9 of the 14 people that filled in the survey “completely disagreed” with the statement „There are professions which should only be done by men or women”. 1 person “totally agreed”, 2 persons “agreed” and 2 were undecisive. All respondents “completely agreed” with the statement “women should have the same rights as men”.

[27] I thank Isabel Navarro for her invaluable analyses of the data.

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