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The Pursuit of Equality


By Anne Schwobe

When it comes to equality, I think nearly everyone agrees that it is something we all have to work for. And if we look back at some of the more recent changes in laws, or even the establishment of new laws, it is obvious that there have been some substantive efforts over the past few years to diminish inequality in several fields. However, there is no doubt that there is still much room for improvement. But what does equality mean and are we ever going to be able to achieve “complete equality?”

What are some of the main factors that keep us from treating everyone the same right now and, once we get equal “chances and opportunities” for everyone, what role does equity play? There are a ton of questions that come with the term equality and I am not able to address them in this article. I am also aware that there are a million things to talk about, however, I will try to focus on two main aspects that caught my personal interest the most. First off, I will talk a little bit about the so-called “glass-ceiling effect” and how it is still effective in Germany’s companies as well as what it means for equality in businesses in general. Secondly, I would like to briefly share my thoughts with you on equality in education and how different the educational systems are in Germany and America.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the equality of men and women is still one of the most discussed topics in society. One of the more noticeable areas where women still experience many disadvantages is the working environment. According to the (German) Federal Ministry of Family Affairs the labor market seems to be one of the most important instruments to achieve equality for men and women (BMFSFJ, 2014).

“Männer und Frauen sind gleichberechtigt. Der Staat fördert die tatsächliche Durchsetzung der Gleichberechtigung von Frauen und Männern und wirkt auf die Beseitigung bestehender Nachteile hin.”

(Grundrecht, Art. 3, Satz 1-3).1

Written down as a law in the German constitution, men and women have equal rights. Equality is understood as a basic right for every human being. Even though law should assure equality of men and women, we all know that in reality we still have a long road ahead of us until women will receive the same treatment as men. Despite all the advances and changes that have taken place over the past few years, women still encounter discrimination in numerous situations. An existing inequality seems particularly noticeable in the workplace; women still represent a minority in leading positions. Despite the gradual increase of female leaders in businesses over the past few years, they are still yet to be found in most big companies. An increased employment rate seems to be a requirement for social integration but at the same time an increase in a female employment rate itself doesn’t result in increased gender equality. A lot of women can still be found working in a rather low-wage labor market. Of course we do not want to generalize this and there are definitely some very well known women who achieve(d) incredible things.

Even though the still widely spread traditional perception of the distribution of roles in a family or household sees the man as the “breadwinner,” one can notice a change over the past few years. But despite the fact that the “male breadwinner family model” is disappearing, the traditional gendered roles somehow remain largely intact. Even though dual-earner families may become the norm more and more, it seems like women still continue to bear most of the burden of reproducing and caring for the next generation (biological reasons may be taken into account here as well :P). Starting a family often results into a conflict with a woman’s career and leaves her with an “either-or question” because a lot of employers make it still really hard to combine work with raising children. The lack of childcare facilities as well as precarious labor conditions are often mentioned as reasons why especially academics wait to have children. Another reason is that many potential “leaders” perceive starting a family as a career obstacle. This is where things have to change in order to achieve equality in the working environment. Stronger career-orientated women call for an adaptation of male career models. And it has started to be more common in Germany to have the dad stay home with the child during maternity leave whereas 30 years ago, this was rather unthinkable. GO CHANGE! YAY!

“Women will only have true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.”

-Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Another factor that implies that gender inequality still exists is the difference in payment. According to an article by Eva Marie Kogler (2014), women make about 1/5 less than their male colleagues in similar positions which results in a so-called “gender pay gap,” a gender income inequality. Moreover, the percentage of women in leading positions in certain professional fields as well as within most industries is incredibly low. Possible reasons may be informal barriers that exist, e.g. through a company’s policy/philosophy or existing beliefs and perceptions about certain gender-roles. These informal barriers that exist among others are called “glass-ceiling.” The term is not randomly chosen; it is a metaphor in two ways. On the one hand, the “ceiling” stands as a metaphor for the boundary which women experience on the way up to the management level. To further clarify the term “glass”; women technically have the chance to be promoted (can see the top positions through the glass) but there are some kinds of informal, invisible mechanisms that keep them from getting the leading/management positions.

All of the mentioned differences above result from gender-specific roles that still exist in society. Although the role allocation does not seem to be that rigid or stiff nowadays, there are still a variety of stereotypical images of masculinity, femininity, and the associated, sometimes unspoken, assigned roles and behaviors.

Since the topic of equality in education seems like a really big and broad topic on its own as well, I would like to keep it rather short and just share some thoughts with you. But where should I begin? I think it is pretty obvious but sometimes easy to forget that access to education is influenced by many factors. For “us,” it is kind of the norm but still a privilege to get an education. We start in kindergarten, go from elementary school through middle school to high school, most likely end up going to a university. Or not? It might be nothing new to tell you that the educational system in Germany is very different compared to the American. After the A-level (Abitur), students have to make some big decisions. They have to decide whether they apply for an apprenticeship (“Ausbildung,” part-time working in a company and going to school to learn more about the specific profession) or if they want to study at a university or college. I guess this could be something where the topic of equity could be discussed. Is it fair that there are different choices or even different “levels” of education? Or is it unfair that not everyone can go to college because of your grades in high school?

The biggest difference to America is the amount of tuition fees. Every time I tell someone about how much (or better, how little) I pay for school, I feel a little worse. School in Germany is basically free! I think it’s pretty fair that if you “qualify” for higher education, you actually get to enjoy some education without having to worry about how to pay the student debt even before getting the first paycheck. So do I think the American educational system screams equality or for that matter equity? Certainly not…. SORRY, I still love America, I just do not get why “the system” makes you pay so much for something that you want, need, and that most likely other people will benefit from as well – so GO BERNIE!

But before talking about equality in education it should be a main goal to make education available to as many people as possible. The denial of opportunity can be used for the purposes of oppressing a certain group in a country, e.g. by gender, sexuality, or religion. We should never take education for granted, especially if we keep in mind that there are many children (and lots of them are girls) who do not have any access to education at all. GO MALALA!

It seems that equality, equity, and fairness in education may still be somewhat far from existing in some places – but we’re working on it. It is clear that in a lot of countries it is recognized that there are issues affecting the provision of equality in education or even providing education for as many citizens as practically possible. We have to acknowledge that not all of those who should be are included and receiving the education that many organizations, such as UNESCO, are working towards. Let’s work together to make education available for more and more people around the world.

1Translates to: Men and women have equal rights. The state promotes the actual implementation of equal rights for women and men and takes steps to eliminate disadvantages.

Bundesministerium für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend (2014): Gleichstellung im Erwerbsleben. Online unter: http://www.bmfsfj.de/BMFSFJ/Gleichstellung/frauen- und-arbeitswelt.html (Letzter Zugriff: 10.04.2016).

Kogel, Eva Marie (2014): Frauen verdienen ein Fünftel weniger als Männer. Online unter: http://www.welt.de/print/die_welt/politik/article130728583/Frauen-verdienen-ein-Fuenftel-weniger-als-Maenner.html (Letzter Zugriff: 10.04.2016).

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