Merkel hasn't improved the lot of underpaid German women
Germany has flourished under Chancellor Angela Merkel over the last 12 years, with record-low unemployment and robust economic growth. But it hasn't translated into better pay for women in the country, where one of the worst gender pay gaps in Europe looks unlikely to get better soon.
Despite having a woman running the government, a new gender pay law lacks the teeth to boost women's standing in the corporate sector. The so-called Wage Transparency Act, which took full force in January, puts the onus on individual employees to step forward and request information on wage discrepancies, while companies are given plenty of wriggle room.
"The law will practically have no impact on furthering pay equality," said Hans-Georg Kluge, a lawyer who specialises in anti-discrimination cases.
"Individual women who are willing to take their case to court will draw no benefit from this."
In the UK, companies are now required to publish their gender pay gaps annually. France plans laws that would require pay-gap tracking.
Despite Ms Merkel's status and a German political scene peppered with strong female leaders, the role of women in the corporate world is limited. While the #MeToo movement has drawn widespread attention to sexual harassment and assault, the pay gap is in many ways anchored in German culture, with the term "Frauenberufe" (women's jobs) used to refer to lower paid careers such as social work, hairstyling and nursing.
Even in fields dominated by women, such as medical assistants, men can get paid 40pc more. Lower pay, along with more part-time work, means women earn about 50pc less over their working lives than male peers, according to a 2017 study by the German Institute for Economic Research.
Such discrepancies, along with shortfalls in childcare and social pressures, contribute to fewer women in the workforce.
The Labour Ministry said in a report last year that it sees "significant potential" in raising the volume of hours worked by women, but for that to happen general conditions would have to improve.
"Working for women should be something totally normal, and that could also help companies to cope with capacity constraints," said Gertrud Traud, chief economist of Helaba Landesbank Hessen-Thueringen in Frankfurt.
"We have a labour-friendly market right now. This is also true for women, and they should use it to their advantage."
The wage law isn't Germany's first effort to highlight gender discrimination. A 2016 initiative required large companies to appoint at least 30pc women to their supervisory boards. It had some impact at the top of the corporate ladder, but broader inequality remains.
When the wage law was passed last year, the German government said it was an "important step towards more wage equality". In reality though, the final version serves more to tick boxes than to generate underlying change, according to Torsten von Roetteken, a retired judge and the author of numerous books on German gender-equality law.
"The hurdles are extremely high and require the individual to have a high tolerance and capacity for conflict," Mr Roetteken said.
Unsurprisingly, the response has been lukewarm. Just one in eight respondents plan to ask their employers to explain pay differences, according to a survey conducted by consultancy EY. A third of those baulking at requests cited concerns about negative repercussions as the reason. (Bloomberg)