Wage equality

Mind the Pay Gap

Auszubildende lernen das Friseur-Handwerk im Technologiezentrum Lüneburg
Please don't trim any more off my wages.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany has one of the E.U.’s worst records in female worker equality, especially with regards to pay.

  • Facts


    • On average, women earn 22 percent less than men in Germany.
    • The country recently introduced a law requiring supervisory boards to be at least 30 percent female.
    • Almost 70 percent of the country’s low-wage workforce is female.
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Thirty-hour working weeks, home-office working, company kindergartens and parental leave for fathers – today’s employers have to show great sensibility for women and family issues.

And it doesn’t stop there. A legal quota, passed in parliament earlier this month, requires firms to fill at least 30 percent of supervisory board seats with female executives, forcing them to appoint more women just as anti-discrimination activists call for measures against sexual harassment at the workplace.

And now Minister for Family Affairs, Manuela Schwesig, wants to minimize the salary difference between men and women by law.

If she were successful, the law would benefit more people than Germany’s new minimum wage: An advisor to the government has shown that one in two female professionals experiences wage discrimination.

Managers of mid-sized companies already joke that they feel like women’s affairs officers. Members of the ruling conservative Christian Democrats who skipped the recent vote on the quota are already looking forward to the next fight with their center-left Social Democratic coalition partners.

But the minister should nevertheless stick to her plans.

Managers of mid-sized companies already joke that they feel like women’s affairs officers.

Any government would promise more than it can deliver if it pledged fair wages. Even in public service, where the state negotiates salaries, fair remuneration is difficult to pin down.

Is it fair to pay more to those who have a rare qualification, even if they never had to invest much in their education? Should salaries reflect effort or simply results? Should older employees be paid more for their experience, even if their output is less than that of their younger colleagues?

Any politician attempting to find an answer to those questions can only fail. But that’s no reason to accept injustices. Women take home almost 22 percent less than men in Germany, according to the Federal Statistical Office. Only six of the 28 E.U. countries fare worse.

Part-time work, gaps in careers and especially career choices are responsible for parts of the wage gap.

But after eliminating these factors, the key reason must lie in unfair assessments by superiors. A now-famous experiment with professional musicians has demonstrated this fact. When applying for an orchestra, only male musicians were hired; but when applicants auditioned behind a curtain, hiding the musician’s gender, suddenly women succeeded.

In Germany, the gender wage gap is especially large because of a lack of a strong lobby for working women. The industrial unions, with their largely male workforces, have petitioned for countless improvements in the labor market, such as training, toilet breaks and workplace safety regulations such as providing enough bins. It seems that the only fight they have not taken up is the concerns of female professionals.

And the German feminist movement was too busy lobbying for a right to abortion and fighting against rape, prostitution, pornography and sexism.

Yet the motives for fighting for wage equality have never been better. After all, we can buy more than we used to, and we have more free time because of the boom in services. Who, for example, can today start a family if natural conception fails? Only couples with enough money for an international adoption, for egg donations or a surrogate.

Even dying in a comfortable environment can be a question of money. More and more old people spend their last days with health care professionals instead of relatives. A well-educated nurse costs more than an overworked helper without language skills.

The whiny pro-business advocates are right only on one point: They can rightly expect the state to make the same effort as they do.

A law for equal wages is a response to the economization of our every-day lives that affects women twice as much: As consumers who have to pay for babysitters and household help, and as service providers who don’t want to be exploited.

Females make up 70 percent of the low-wage workforce. No wonder that some of them fight back. The government should help them, because everything contradicts the notion that this problem is going to solve itself.

The shortage of skilled labor will end the problem, many argue. There are many well-educated women, and considering the situation in the labor market, according to this logic they can confidently make their demands.

But the gender wage gap is nowhere wider than in the wealthy states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg – exactly where companies have been desperately looking for employees. Official statistics furthermore show that females’ paychecks lag behind those of their male peers particularly among well-paid academics who negotiate their salaries on their own.

The whiny pro-business advocates are right only on one point: They can rightly expect the state to make the same effort as they do, for example when it comes to paying kindergarten teachers or nurses.

Even the law on female boardroom quotas suffers from the striking flaw that private companies are now supposed to be punished when too few women climb the ranks, while in the public sector firms have ignored similar regulation for a long time without consequences.


This article originally appeared in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the author: elisabeth.niejahr@zeit.de

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