One Step Back for Merkel, One Step Forward for German Women

In a political showdown between Chancellor Angela Merkel and her very own Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen--both of the CDU--over the issue of instituting a quota system for the number of women who must be allowed to sit on the boards of Germany's corporations, Mrs. Merkel was forced to confront an increasingly challenging issue in national politics and one which she had once had under control in her own party.

Once under the belief that the economy would naturally make room for women in management positions, she caved in to pressure from a determined faction within her own party led by Ms. von der Leyen and agreed to include in the CDU election program a point to make it legally binding that women make up at least 30 percent of board management in Germany by 2020. However, many have questioned whether it will be realized.

The intense debate not only created a rift within the CDU but is also pitted two high-ranking women in German politics against one another. Ms. von der Leyen, who is a trained doctor and a mother of six children, was brought in as labor minister in large part to focus on women's issues. Mrs. Merkel, on the other hand, has no children and has not made the advancement of women a top priority in her political agenda. Rather, she had opposed earlier legislation that would have made into law quotas for women, instead opting to give corporations the freedom to adopt quotas of their own.

The fact that Mrs. Merkel was forced to concede to members of her own party made this an especially hard defeat for the Chancellor. The Bild commented, "Angela Merkel was once able to lay down the law against a strict quota. That is no longer true." What may be even more troublesome for her is the dissention within her own party as they attempt to make a show of unity for the national elections to be held in September. She has dismissed criticism of her handling of this issue by describing the vote not as a political loss but as a compromise within a politically diverse party.

The opposition in parliament had proposed legislation that would have given women 20 percent representation on corporate boards by 2018. It was this proposal that Ms. von der Leyen used as a bargaining chip against Mrs. Merkel, threatening to vote with the opposition instead of her own party. In the end, the labor minister sided with the CDU to vote down the opposition's proposal by a vote of 320 to 277, with one abstention.

Frank Walter Steinmeier, the chairman of the opposition SPD, questioned Mrs. Merkel's dedication to this issue, describing her change of heart as being entirely politically motivated. "She does not care about the issue at all," he said, "Her main aim is to have peace." He went on to comment that she is more concerned about party consensus than the true interests of women, "It is only about tactics and show, not about politics."

Women's quotas has been a major issue throughout Europe, with some countries, such as France and Norway, having already sealed them into law. Germany, on the other hand, has taken a slower approach, partly because Mrs. Merkel has chosen to use her political clout in other areas of German politics.

With German corporations having some of the lowest numbers of women represented on their boards--according to some studies, women make up only 4 percent of the board members of Germany's top 200 corporations--there exists also a certain cultural barrier that must be confronted as women seek upper management positions. There is currently a debate in German society about whether a quota would do more harm than good. Some suggest that it would bring about mediocrity within an organization by promoting less-qualified workers, and others point to the idea that women may face resentment for being promoted by law rather than on the basis of merit. Rolf Pohl, professor of sociology at the University of Hanover, says, however, "As long as we have no other instrument to solve the inequalities that still exist, it is unfortunately the only instrument that will work."

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