Employment Discrimination Against Women Knows No Borders

A 77-year-old German man has a simple demand from life. "I would like to die as I have lived — on a woman." And when he came across a 19-year-old who denied him that, he filed a case of age discrimination against her.

The exploitative and dangerous practice of child marriages occurs when girls are sold off to men old enough to be their fathers and grandfathers, and it is guised as a legal marriage.

This man, known for having started Germany’s first-ever discotheque and popularized stripteases in post-war West Germany, felt discriminated against and filed charges against a 19-year-old for refusing to sleep with him. Putting a finger on the emotions elicited by the septuagenarian’s grouse seemed the bigger task: was it anger, humor, ridicule , outrage, anger…?


While age discrimination in Germany more often refers to the employment market, here was someone with the audacity to give it a whole new meaning. And it is cases like this that make one wonder how different perceptions surrounding women really are when it comes to their position and status across societies.

While the manifestations of these perceptions might oscillate from subtle to the barbaric, depending on the cultural context, gender discrimination is something women continue to wrestle with, whether it is amidst more liberal and and gender-balanced societies or in the conservative societies that continue to struggle to bring about parity even at the more basic levels. Women  suffer sex-based discrimination whether it is in India or a country like Germany, home of some of the more liberal laws in Europe.  
The more recent case of a German professor’s gender discrimination lawsuit leading to a local government investigation over the appointment of a university director, has become the flash point for highlighting women’s struggle to reach top academic positions in the country. The suit is hinged on German regulations, which require that women should be preferentially selected for leading positions if all candidates are of equal merit. The country’s dismal record in this context is reflected in findings from 2006 which show that only 7 of 109 universities in Germany are led by women. With only 9 percent of the senior academic positions occupied by women, Germany had the lowest proportion in 12 major European countries.


Another case that made headlines was that of a group of six women executives who filed a gender-discrimination suit against the US subsidiary of a German investment bank claiming unequal pay for the same work when compared to their male counterparts, denial of access to key deals and "systematic" denial for promotions at their workplace.


In addition to these complaints, the suit included descriptions of sexual advances, derisive remarks regarding maternity leave and that meetings would sometimes end with a visit to a strip club. The company claimed that many of the claims were "irrelevant" to a sex-discrimination case.
Thousands of miles and many cultural contexts apart, the stories are not so different for many Indian women professionals. One that stands out in public memory is that of India’s first female Indian Police Service (IPS) officer. After over three and a half decades of police service and a more than ordinary service record, she was overlooked for the prestigious appointment of the Indian capital’s police commissioner for a junior. It prompted her voluntary retirement from the service.


Having courted controversy throughout her service, the gender bias is believed to have worked against her too, a pattern also evidenced in several bureaucratic appointments in the country around the same time. While public outcry often does enough to show the support for individual cases, it hardly changed the actual system, due to the social sanction accorded to such discrimination.


Even in Germany, though the number of gender-discrimination lawsuits has increased in more recent years, a less tangible, but perhaps more powerful factor that makes sex discrimination tacitly acceptable is the social acquiescence that is culturally not deemed as something outrageous.


Connected to this perhaps is the fact that compensation damages in Germany tend to be much lower with many people still believing in the concept of "contractual freedom," which gives complete autonomy to the employer on matters of promotions. More significantly, with so little social support for gender discrimination suits, women fear that such an action would hamper and permanently damage their chances on the job market.


Statistics reveal that while there is an average pay gap of 16 percent between men and women across the EU, a 2004 study showed an average gender-pay gap of 24 percent in Germany.


Back in India, there is currently is no law against sexual harassment and abuse at work places. The Supreme Court (SC) of India laid down certain guidelines and norms for observance at all work places, in the public or private sector, which are required to be treated as the law under the Indian Constitution. Thus, it is enforceable until a suitable legislation is enacted by the Indian Parliament. A recent ruling by the Bombay High Court on a case of sexual harassment filed by a female employee of a private sector company against her male superior comes as an encouragement for women who been silent on the issue.


Afraid of losing her job, the victim did not complain initially, but the harassment did not cease culminating in her dismissal from service after an enquiry was instated following her accusations. It is the Labor Court that upheld her appeal and directed the company to reinstate her last year. The company failed to comply with the Labor Court’s ruling, which lead to the High Court’s intervention.


It is the more recent case of the murder of the German Afghan girl in Hamburg, called an ‘honor killing,’ that brings into direct conflict issues of gender and culture. The girl was murdered by her older brother after a culmination of a series of physical assaults, which are believed to have occurred in the presence of law enforcers, by the family.


In a country where the family took refuge, the flawed understanding and misplaced tolerance of a cultural practice should take precedence over any kind of intolerance to violence, particularly gender violence, is what eventually killed this young Afghan girl. Her death continues to lose itself amidst discourses on multiculturalism, integration, fundamentalism, honor and dishonor, a reflection of how gender imbalance should have no place in any society. It finds its way insidiously through the gaping holes of conservative, socio-political agendas just about anywhere in the world.

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  • invalid-0

    Sex discrimination (in the U.S.) is alive and well. When I was 38 I had a job as a computer programmer. I was the only woman in the office and was harassed until it was unbearable. I was fired after I came in one day and my eyes were red and swollen. I was fired for ‘the good of the company’. They proceeded to ruin my reputation with all the head hunters computer professionals use. I could’nt get another job. I have been on diability ever since. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my right to work being taken away. I have been on anti-depressents for 20 years. When I had gone to a lawyer he told me either the truth comes out or they all stick together and lie. I knew no one would stand up for me. Of course my doctor said no one would treat someone this way and I must have been preceiving it wrong. Hence the disability. Enough to pay bills and nothing else. Forget going out to lunch with friends or to the movies or going to the gym. Everyday has a reminder of the horror I had to live through everytime I would like to do something and can’t because I haven’t any money. This has created a hatred inside of me that touches everyone I come in contact with much as I try to get rid of it. Hate and sadness are my constant companions, probably until the day I die. It is what it is.

    • invalid-0

      I hear you. I’ve been working since I was 19, and am 56 now. I’ve been an investigator for over 25 years. I served in the Armed Forces and have had to pay my dues over and over again. When you are a woman, nothing counts: experience, skill, intelligence, education. When I had my child, I took only a few days off. Work was never a “hobby” or a way to get money for the movies. For me work has always been very important to me, my source of income and self-esteem, not a joke. But over the years I faced horrible discrimination and still do. I am paid $20 to $30 grand a year less than my male co-workers who have much less experience and training and much less responsibility. My current boss is dismissive, openly discriminatory, callous and rude. He admits he pays me less because I’m a woman and feels he has every right to do so. If I “don’t like it I can leave”. I’m stuck for now because of medical insurance and being a widow with a child to take care of. I can’t afford an attorney or to lose my job. I haven’t had a vacation in over 20 years, while my co-workers live in nice homes, drive nice cars, have savings, and take vacations. I hate my boss with a passion and my male co-workers as well, but put on a pretty face. They never give me credit for anything I do or have done and never include me in anything social. They take credit for my work for clients and tell them I’m “just a secretary”. I have a medical condition too, but keep it a secret and never use it as an excuse, but just plug along even when I’m in pain. It gets harder and harder to cope. I completely understand how stress and disprespect can add to the problem and don’t look down on you regarding your medical problems at all. Life can really suck.

  • deepali-gaur-singh

    Firstly, I am humbled by both of you…in sharing what has been been quite evidently a painful personal experience…your near daily struggle to be taken seriously as working professionals and to be treated equally. What makes it even more disturbing and critical is the fact that this is an issue which despite the presence of protective laws against discrimination has permeated so deep into the social structure everywhere that cultural contexts and subcontexts are also often rendered irrelevant.


    In an earlier post on laws for workplace equality (child care leave in India) some months back another reader shared a similar experience that she witnessed with a colleague from within her particular milieu. Clearly gender balance and workplace equality continues to be a multilayered struggle that cannot be resolved solely at the legislative level.  

  • invalid-0

    As an American girl that grew up in the 60’s and 70’s I was encouraged and hopeful that equality for me and other women would become a reality in the USA. I did my school work, did my duty as a citizen, paid my taxes, kept a clean record, and worked at different types of male dominated jobs before joining the military. I thought certainly the military would have to treat me as an equal. That is another story in itself.

    After meeting and exceeding the requirements of the armed forces, I left the service with honor and awards. I then worked as a legal secretary and then returned to investigations which I have done for several years. I have kept my nose to the grindstone to try to earn the respect and compensation that is promised to those who work hard and pay their dues. I now find myself at 56 years of age struggling to pay the bills and continuing to be confronted with lack of respect and total disregard for my accomplishments and skills. I see my male co-workers who are less experienced and skilled living much higher lifestyles, enjoying respect, higher pay, and opportunities that are denied to me. They are able to provide for their families and put their children through college. While my son and I struggle to keep the lights on and food on the table. My boss’s company has less than 6 employees, so the laws against discrimination do not apply, and he knows it and keeps the company under 6 for that reason. I have run his company and supervised the other investigators for the past 16 years, and yet in his eyes I’ve never “graduated” beyond secretary status. He has turned me down for a raise for the past two years and threatens to fire me if I don’t stop “pressuring” him. The company has made more money each year than the last but he says he cannot “afford” to give me a raise, even though he just bought another new car. As punishment for asking for a raise, he says my wages are “capped”, that I will never receive another raise and if I don’t like it I can leave and he will find someone younger who he can pay half as much.

    He is just like his conservative peers, a man who continually says “no” to equality, “no” to respect, and “no” to fair compensation. Even though he is my age, he has no clue that treating me as a second class citizen is wrong. He has not taken anything to heart thest past 38 years, has no empathy, no appreciation, and is an elitist, judgmental, spoiled, withholding, greedy, oppressive snob.

    We have NOT “come a long way, baby”. Not at all. I used to be a conservative myself, but voted for Obama this last election. I am tired of lip service and no action and tired of hearing “no”.