Tag Archives: germany

My Quota Memo

Just in time for International Women’s Day, the discussion about quotas for women is back with a vengeance. The EU is once again pushing for quotas in boardrooms and in Germany, journalists are demanding equal representation in the media. Naturally, the news is all over it, printing opinion pieces everywhere, which has prompted me to gather all the thoughts and ideas about the quota that seem relevant to me. None of these ideas are mine; I have simply collected them from articles, blog posts and comments, in order to weed out the ones that continuously derail the discussion. None of this is new, but I figured it cannot hurt to be repeated as much as possible.

1. When we talk about the women’s quota, we are already making the first mistake, because generally what is proposed is a gender-based quota. A 40% quota law could  mean that at least 40% must be either male or female. The fact, that such a law would primarily promote women is the sad underlying truth of the whole debate.

2. A 30%, 40% or 50% quota that promotes women would still effectively result in a 70%, 60% or 50% quota of men. Considering that men and women make up about half of the population each, how exactly does this translate to “discrimination against men”?

3. Quotas are supposed to benefit the disadvantaged, not to increase their disadvantages. Demanding quotas for women in less desirable occupations is such a lame argument, I shouldn’t even be mentioning here, but it seems to come up every single time. Firstly, some sectors, such as the public cleaning service in Berlin, already have a quota system, even a successful one. Secondly, men and women are already fairly equally represented in low paid, exploitative and dangerous jobs, there’s absolutely no need to distribute the social inequalities more evenly.

4. A quota arrangement is never an ideal situation. An ideal situation would include the potential results of a quota (equal representation) minus the actual quota rule.

5. A quota can never be a single solution. It is not an all-encompassing remedy for the inequality of the sexes; it may not even be a start in the right direction. The quota as an isolated measure is useless. It is not a coincidence that it has been embraced more in countries, which already have a fair amount of laws in place that promote equality (for example France and the Scandinavian countries).

6. Here is what the quota does:

It furthers the equal representation of half of the population. It helps create a society in which women are active and equal participants; a society that inspires young girls to follow in their footsteps and have high aspirations. Women’s issues and perspectives will become part of the agenda. 

they didn't need a quota to discuss women's issues: the all-male panel testifying before congress about the insurance coverage for contraception. via abc news

7. Here is what the quota doesn’t do:

It doesn’t necessarily improve the performance of a business or generate higher profits. It may even have the adverse effect. A quota arrangement is not designed as a push for the economy. It is an affirmative action to counter structural discrimination.

It doesn’t necessarily change or improve the working culture or hierarchical structures. That’s a whole other set of adjustments that does not automatically follow the implementation of a quota. A lot of rethinking is necessary in that area, and a quota can only ever be a tiny part of that process, if at all.

All things considered, I am still in favour of the quota, but as an isolated measure suggested  and enforced by politicians I find it unconvincing and populist. Evidently, there are different kinds of quotas, and in certain areas they make more sense to me than in others. I am certainly in favour of a quota in the media, and a political party without a considerable amount of women should be unelectable for any woman in my opinion. But when it comes to the boardroom quota for corporations, I kind of don’t really care. Somehow I highly doubt that any woman (or man) could end up in that position without compromising their convictions and throwing other women (or men) under the bus…

Admitting Privilege, Admitting Assholery

A recent ‘scandal’ in the German blogosphere has lead to a minor shitstorm among the social media-savvy networkers. It was triggered by a rather sad event, the collision of well-intentioned activism (the organisation of an anti-racist festival at a university) and baffling ignorance. You can read about the highlight, or rather lowlight, of the story here.

Basically, the black activist and writer Noah Sow was invited to give a lecture at the aforementioned festival, but upon arrival she was confronted with organizers who seemed unprepared and unfamiliar with her work. When she was introduced to the location for her lecture, she couldn’t help but notice that the student café was “adorned” with an offensive colonial lamp, whereupon Sow cancelled the event and left, a decision which was critized by many as an overreaction.

But this blog entry is not about the event itself, rather it is about the discussion it sparked. Most articles on this subject matter (for example here, here and here, all in German) were debated quite heatedly with comments in the hundreds and accompanying tweets. The opposing sides and their arguments could be loosely divided into two camps: on the one hand oversensitized sociology and humanities students who see discrimination everywhere, on the other the liberal-minded everyman (also occasionally everywoman) who just wants to be left in peace.

To be fair, both groups are annoying. I can say that because I am one of those hyper-sensitized humanities students and I know for a fact that I can be annoying, with my constant bickering about the world’s inequalitites. It just doesn’t make for nice family lunch conversations. But what distinguishes both camps most obviously, in my mind, is self-awareness. While one group is very capable of it, maybe excessively so, the other lacks true self-reflection in a complex society.

I get it. We are all tired of the so-called oppression olympics. I’m sure every single one of us has experienced discrimination or humiliation at some point in their life, be it for being considered too young or too old, too ugly or too cute, too extroverted or too shy. But can we please all agree that certain “inevitabilities” prevent us from being exposed to certain forms of discrimination, for example that being a bio-woman I am considered more socially acceptable than a trans-woman, that being white I will never face institutionalized racism? See, it doesn’t hurt to admit that in many ways I am better off than others and that that’s not okay.

sometimes it takes kanye west to illustrate privilege (still from video "runaway")

And being the privileged white girl that I am, I am also prone to have prejudices and to make inconsiderate remarks, that can be offensive and hurtful to others. And I know that they are wrong, but they still happen, sometimes. Bad habits die hard, but I am not proud of that and I take full responsibility. Which is why I would get very defensive if someone called me a racist or homophobe – I know that’s just not true – but that doesn’t prevent me from saying racist or homophobic things. Awareness and acceptance are the first step, an apology the next.

But alas, I am just an overly sensitive feminist, constantly assessing my behavior and my flaws. Those liberal-minded folks posing as the mainstream, however, they don’t like to have their noses rubbed in it all the time. Because being young and educated and left-wing, they are quasi tolerant and open-minded by default. And they are tired, tired of the p.c. talk, tired of being reminded of their privilege which is, after all, not their fault, they claim. But try to take it away from them, their privilege, and they get all defensive (see any discussion about quota laws, yes means yes, immigration…).

What they need to realize is that this defense mechanism is precisely what perpetuates inequality and power relations and prevents progressive social change. Instead, we should all aim to be the best person that we can be, which does not imply that one should try to please everyone. Frustration and anger are important sentiments, but they need to be channelled in the right direction. Sometimes toward oneself.

Admit to your privilege, admit to your assholery, and then try to make things better, so you won’t have that privilege, so you won’t have to be an asshole.

Barcamp Frauen 2011

Last Saturday I attended the Barcamp Frauen 2011 in Berlin, and no, it is not an ERASMUS party. To be honest, I had never been to a barcamp before and no one I asked had any clue what it was. Turns out it is an overall great idea, some sort of unconference, where the participants decide what should be talked about and are actively engaging in the debates. The upside is that you get to choose which workshops you are going to attend; on the downside, however, you often have to choose between two or more great sessions that happen at the same time. That was precisely my dilemma, and I am not sure I always made the right choice.

The first workshop I participated in was presented by a woman working for the German Trade Union Federation and was titled Work and Future – Future without work? The aim was to talk about women’s desire to have “everything”: a career, a loving partnership, children etc. How can this be achieved, can it be achieved at all and, perhaps more importantly, is it necessary to have to want all these things?

I figured this could be a good session for me to attend, considering that I have almost finished my studies with no clear plan of what to do next. Turns out I wasn’t the only one. At least twenty women attended the session, aged 15-45 and none of them seemed to be entirely sure of what the future might hold for them. Hopes and fears were exchanged between the not so carefree white girls, fuelled by personal stories and examples of structural discrimination.

I guess what irked me a little bit about the discussion was the matter of course way in which we talked about having a career, when so many people these days are struggling just to have a job. Of course, we were discussing these issues because we could, and we should be very happy about that. Nevertheless, the overall mood was defined by uncertainty and worriedness.

I talked to a woman in her mid-thirties who had been successful in the career of her choice and was hoping to have children one day. However, she was well aware of her ticking biological clock and her lack of a partner to start a family with. I listened to a woman who managed to leave the Turkish village she was born in to become a well-respected academic who just had her second child at the age of 41. A success story, one might think, but she still worried about being an “old mum” and having waited too long to have children.

The one thing we could all agree on was that no life is perfect and that there are different paths in life to becoming happy. However, the one thing that almost no one could imagine was having children and a successful career at the same time. The main obstacles were easily identified as structural and systemic problems that cannot be eliminated straight away. So what’s a girl to do if she “wants it all”? Get informed, be aware, find allies and put pressure on employers, political leaders and partners.

After lunch break I only managed to go to one other session which was about feminist politics on the web. Unfortunately much of the time was wasted trying to establish the average web and tech-savviness of the group, and discussing data privacy protection for half an hour made me wish I had gone to “Radical feminist muslima” instead. Nevertheless, I truly enjoyed this event, I got to know some fantastic women, and felt inspired to contribute more to next year’s barcamp – perhaps by offering a workshop myself?

You can find pictures and more info on the respective Facebook page (which is down at the moment, I don’t know why). I am not in any of the photographs, which is a good thing considering I was suffering from a major hangover and was still wearing last night’s make-up. Thanks, sis’.

German Court Suggests Iraqi Woman Has Her Hymen Restored To Prevent Honor Killing

What a truly shocking and sad story!

A young Iraqi woman fled to London and then to Hamburg in order to escape her family who was forcing her to marry her cousin. According to the Dublin Regulation, she would have to request asylum in the first European country she entered: Great Britain. But the young woman, who goes under the name Zainab Sulman, is afraid to go back to the country where she has relatives who could easily track her down. In fact, she fears they may even be capable of committing an honor killing.

Sulman, who has already attempted suicide twice while living in Iraq, is currently staying in a church that has offered her shelter. She would like to do her Master’s degree and move on to find a job and love, in short: to live a self-determined life. However, the administrative court in Hamburg refused to protect her by offering her asylum in Germany. They ruled that “no extraordinary humanitarian reasons” could be determined and suggested that Sulman, who is not a virgin anymore, should have her hymen restored through surgery; that it should suffice to maintain the illusion during her wedding night and prevent her family’s rage.

Sulman has to remain in the church in hiding for at least another year in order not to get deported. She is hoping that an online petition will help to get her case reviewed.

You can read the full story here and here (both in German).

You can sign the petition here.

eva lake "anonymous woman no. 14" 2011

Breaking The Glass Ceiling: In Defense Of The Women’s Quota

Norway has it, France wants it, and Germany is fighting about it: the female quota in the boardrooms of major corporations. In fact, the recent debate in Germany once again started a discussion about the pros and cons of the quota system in the labor market. Back in 2001, Germany introduced a voluntary quota to increase the number of female executives in companies. Ten years later the results of this ‘’measure’’ turned out to be dismal with little to no progress:

“Women currently hold only 3.2 percent of executive board positions in the 200 largest companies. When the circle is narrowed to the 30 companies listed on the German DAX stock index and the 100 largest companies, the proportion of women falls to 2.2 percent. Put differently, of the 490 executive board members in these companies, 11 are women.” (Beyer and Voigt, Der Spiegel, 2011 )

this is what a quota woman looks like

These numbers, for a Western nation forty years after the Women’s Liberation Movement, are simply outrageous, and chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to “give companies another chance” is a slap in the face to all the women who have been pursuing careers for years and everyone fighting for gender equality. The voluntary system is obviously not working, so what are Merkel’s concerns?

The quota debate has sparked heated discussions, even within the feminist community. Needless to say, it is a sensitive topic that involves fundamental political convictions just as much as the individual’s understanding of the meanings of justice and equality. It is the age-old conflict between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome.

Naturally, in a free-market economy such as ours, the introduction of quota systems into the business world seems misguided. Classic liberal thinking (in the economic sense) is based on the idea of meritocracy which assumes that                 “[d]ifferential status and differential income are based on technical skills and higher education” and that “these high-scoring individuals, no matter where they are in society, would be brought to the top in order to make the best use of their talents” (Daniel Bell, 1973). However, these principles are based on idealistic assumptions that fail to “account for the fact that society itself, through a pattern of selective discrimination against members of certain groups, may be partially responsible for whether specific members of the groups are deemed to be talented. In other words, if over many decades society excludes the members of certain ethnic or sexual groups from educational and economic opportunities which are accorded to others, it ought not to be too surprising that members of the social groups who have been discriminated against are now deemed to be generally less talented than those who have had the advantage of superior training and economic opportunity. […] [O]ne can see that the philosophical individualism of the argument for meritocracy fails to account for the social realities of the world itself.” (Conrad, 1976)

a woman's path to the top?

In short, equality of opportunity is a legislative term, not a socially given fact. In the past, affirmative action policies have been implemented in order to counteract the ongoing discrimination of certain groups of people. So why not the female quota?

To claim that women are no longer discriminated against is a naive and wrong assumption. With 60 percent of all graduates of business and economics programs being women, how come they are not being represented in the boardroom? Of course, not all of these women will end up having the necessary qualifications; some of them will get caught up in having a family or are simply not interested in pursuing a high-stakes career. However, these reasons should be all the more alarming. If we don’t manage to create acceptable working conditions for half of the population, we’re clearly doing something wrong. A lot still needs to be done, but a quota is a start and an incentive for women to go and grasp the economic and political power that they deserve.

I understand that this is a luxury problem. After all, this quota concerns perhaps 1% of women who would have access to these positions. But a quota is always a sign, a signal to young girls and women that they, too, have the right and the ability to participate at the top of our society, and also, perhaps, the start of a development that would render quota systems more socially acceptable, at least while they’re still necessary. After all, there are many more areas that could use diversity; for example certain academic fields and the media, to name a few.

But what would be the consequences of such a course of action? Would it not result in reverse discrimination? Well, that depends on how you look at it. A quota of 40% of women executives could still result in 60% of male executives – doesn’t sound much like discrimination to me. It just means that men would have to give up a part of their privilege; a price they would have to pay for a more equal society. The idea is to fill positions with women who are equally qualified as men. Naturally, this would give women applying for these positions an advantage over men; ergo the same advantage in reverse that men have profited from for decades.

this is what the patriarchy looks like

Whether or not women in the boardrooms will increase profits for the respective companies, I cannot say. Most likely there will be just as many bad or brilliant female execs as there are male. Only the future can tell, that is if we allow the quota to be implemented. Circumstances rarely improve by doing nothing. Women did not liberate themselves by waiting around and giving society “another chance” to change. They fought for their rights and they demanded laws to protect these rights. The quota law would protect their right to adequate representation in a society that has yet to learn to acknowledge this right.