Finally Germany’s women have made it and the rule of men has been overcome. At least that was the message of the new gender-quota law, which was passed in Germany in March and is now being implemented. The new law requires over 100 listed companies, including Volkswagen, BMW and Daimler, to give 30 per cent of supervisory-board seats to women from the beginning of next year. Another 3,500 companies are to introduce their own flexible ‘self-imposed’ quotas, and will be obliged to report on their progress from September.
When the law was debated in March, parliament seemed to be enthusiastically celebrating itself and the law. Family minister Manuela Schwesig spoke of a ‘new culture’ in Germany, and justice minister Heiko Maas called the quota ‘the greatest contribution to gender equality since women got the vote’. Schwesig’s special thanks went to a lobby group called FidAR, whose chairwoman, Monika Schulz-Strelow, was sitting in the audience. She had been awarded the Order of Merit (Bundesverdienstkreuz) of the Federal Republic of Germany for her ‘tireless struggle for equality of opportunity for women’.
It is not often that individuals receive such honours. But what makes it stranger still is that the ‘equality of opportunity’ FidAR fought for is limited to a very small group of middle- and upper-class women. According to a study by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), the quota will catapult around 200 well-off women into supervisory-board positions. That’s not exactly mind-boggling change, and a law that privileges such a small group smacks of lobbyism. However, whenever we talk about opportunities for women, normal standards of judgement don’t seem to apply.
Nonetheless, it wouldn´t be right to see this law merely as the result of a clever lobbying campaign. This quota combines interests which reach far beyond the influence of small groups such as FidAR. It would never have met such widespread approval in parliament if it didn’t capture the spirit of our times. (Even the opposition parties wanted the quota – the Green Party pushing for a 40 per cent quota and the Left Party for a 50 per cent quota.)
As the debate showed, this law offers politicians an opportunity to be seen promoting equality for women – a winning ticket these days. The quota allows politicians to present themselves as capable of taking action, while not having to counter much opposition. After all, who would support gender discrimination?
Parliament’s enthusiasm was not shared by the general public. This is hardly surprising. Not just because the law benefits only a few, but also because there never was a broad movement demanding the quota. This law was not preceded by demonstrations, marches or calls for civil disobedience (as women’s suffrage had been). It was the pet project of a very small group of functionaries.
Nonetheless, it would be wrong to say that there is no sympathy for this law. For quite pragmatic reasons, many young professional women support it. They see it as addressing a real problem. According to statistics, German women still earn 22 per cent less than men and are underrepresented in top management positions. A survey commissioned by the Ministry of Justice in January states that only 18.4 per cent of all supervisory-board positions are held by women. The quota is therefore seen by many (especially younger women) as the fastest and most effective way of ensuring more equality.