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Is Merkel’s Success a Victory for Women?

Sunday’s election was a remarkable victory for Angela Merkel and her party, the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU). Achieving the strongest election result in decades, the Christian Democrats nearly secured an absolute majority in the German Bundestag. The consensus is that the party’s triumph is largely due to Merkel’s popularity and high approval rating as Chancellor. From this position of power, Germany’s first female leader, and number one on Forbes’ 100 most powerful women list of 2013, is perfectly placed to promote women’s interest both in Germany and beyond. So what does her success mean for other women?

Many in the UK have made the comparison to Margret Thatcher – both female scientists who became the first women to lead a male dominated conservative party, and the first women to lead their country. But their leadership styles could not be more different. Where Thatcher ruled with an iron fist, Merkel prefers discussion, deliberation and consensus. Her nickname ‘Mutti’ (‘mummy’) is a far cry from the ‘Iron Lady’. Her leadership style –prudent, democratic, modest – has proven to be hugely successful. She exemplifies a different type of leadership, one that many other women, regardless of political affiliation, can relate to. A survey in August 2013 showed that a third of German women now consider her a role model.

Yet there is a significant similarity: neither Thatcher nor Merkel – a former Women’s Minister who grew up in East Germany where equality was central and difference denied –  consider themselves feminists. And although her gender undoubtedly affected her career, Merkel very rarely talks about it. As a former physicist and member of the CDU – who have by far the smallest percentage of female members of parliament in Germany, even if their leadership and cabinet appear otherwise – she has always worked in male dominated environments. Her path to power has been more of a marathon, than a sprint, and one during which her ability was frequently doubted. Even her mentor, former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, didn’t think that his ‘Mädchen’ (girl) could lead successfully.

Her political record on women’s issues is lacking and many feel she has done too little to promote gender equality. Unresolved issues include equal pay, women’s career prospects and women on boards. Particularly troubling is that Germany has one of the highest gender pay gaps in Europe. This failure was recently criticised by the Social Democrats (SPD). Unlike Merkel, they call for the implementation of a minimum wage as a step towards correcting gender pay inequality. They also support women in higher positions by backing a 40% quota for women on boards, which Merkel delayed until 2020. But their criticisms were blunted by questions about the number of women in the SPD leadership, which does not showcase the same gender diversity as the top ranks of the CDU.

This brings us to the deeper problem: issues of gender remain largely unrecognised and unaddressed in German political discourse. Neither the SPD nor the CDU were willing to address issues in gendered terms in their recent national campaigns. The failure of German politics to address women’s issues is further highlighted by the worrying fact that 46% of women don’t look to the government for help on women’s issues. Merkel managed to secure 44% of the women’s vote for her party, compared to 39% of German men. This goes against global trends, where women have begun to lean more towards the left of the political spectrum. But despite her success in the election, only 28% are happy with Merkel’s ‘Frauenpolitik’ and more than half of German women believe that a lot more needs to be done before gender equality is achieved.

Dealing with prejudice throughout her career, Merkel has been reluctant to emphasise her femininity. Years ago, as leader of the opposition during Gerhardt Schroeder’s chancellorship, ‘Das Merkel’ made a conscious effort to run a gender neutral campaign and would not have dared to tackle women’s issues for fear of being labelled and restricted to those issues – a common fear among female politicians. But unlike male leaders in the past, she has accidentally been bestowed the ‘burden of representation’, which makes her failure to act on behalf of women more visible. In the last year, she has become bolder and there are a few examples of her taking action: for example in May when she invited 75 leading professional women and around 30 female students for a conference on women in German society.

Though her political track record leaves much room for improvement in dealing with women’s issues, there are reasons to be hopeful. For one thing, her characteristically feminine leadership style – particularly the way in which she manages power – has made her a role model for many young women in Germany. Over the years, Merkel has become more confident and comfortable in her feminine identity, and last Sunday’s electoral triumph can only add to her confidence. Moreover, her new coalition partner – most probably the SPD – will have stronger ideological inclinations to act on women’s issues. As leader of such a coalition, Merkel might be more reactive than before, though chances that she will be any more proactive on women’s issues are slim.

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