Germany Vindicates Affirmative Action - Mostly in Theory
Ruth Walker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
A GERMAN federal court ruling this month has narrowly vindicated affirmative-action laws intended to increase the number of women in public-sector jobs.
But in the private sector, equal opportunity for women remains largely theoretical. Although gender discrimination is illegal, women hesitate to seek redress in the courts. Even government officials seem to accept that private businesses should have a certain autonomy.
"It's hard to take your employer to court," says Ingrid Barbara Simon, director of women's issues at the Family Affairs Ministry in Bonn. "Even if you win you may lose."
Like the United States, Germany is facing the vexing question of how to improve opportunities for women without putting men at an unfair disadvantage. But it is taking very different approaches: In the US, equal opportunities have generally been pursued in the courts and by individuals, often with support of public-advocacy groups. The German approach has been less litigious and more through public institutions, such as the Family Affairs Ministry.
Especially now, employment opportunity for women here is a looming concern when 12.3 percent of the German work force is unemployed - a postwar record.
Although the image of the jobless German may be the west German auto worker, whose union has effectively priced his services out of the market, the face of the jobless German is just about as likely to be that of a woman.
Women's unemployment is just a nick behind men's - 12.2 percent versus 12.4 percent. And in eastern Germany, unemployment last month was 20.6 percent for women, compared with 16.8 percent for men. The gap is even more significant because winter is a time of high unemployment in sectors where men predominate, notably construction.
The government has tried to forestall a two-tiered labor market - with men getting better jobs and better salaries - partly through quota laws in public-sector hiring.
These have not been without controversy, however. In 1990, in the north German city of Bremen, Eckhard Kalanke, a horticultural designer, was denied a promotion in favor of a woman under Bremen's affirmative action laws. He sued.
The Federal Labor Court in Kassel asked the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg to rule whether the Bremen law was in accord with European law. …