BERLIN — In the seating snub heard round the world, the first woman president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was not offered a chair in April while meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and European Council President Charles Michel. Instead, she had to sit on a sofa nearby while the men talked at the center of the room. Public outcry was swift, with critics pegging the move as overt sexism playing out on the geopolitical stage.
A few weeks later, von der Leyen herself gave a speech, addressing what had been quickly dubbed “sofagate.” She said: “I cannot find any justification for the way I was treated in the European Treaties. So, I have to conclude, it happened because I am a woman.”
Sexism in politics is nothing new, though von der Leyen’s native Germany is often among the top-ranked gender-equal countries in the world, according to the World Economic Forum. But in a recent interview on women’s leadership and gender equality, she noted that the fight for parity, particularly in politics, continues, and “it’s our responsibility, mainly as female leaders, to encourage” younger women to become involved in politics.
An open letter signed by members of the Women Political Leaders group, including by Helen Clark, its board chair and an ex-prime minister of New Zealand, was released right after Sofagate. The signees noted that “even after reaching the top, women leaders can still be distanced from the centre of action.”
Since 2005, Angela Merkel has been leading Europe’s most powerful country. But despite a woman holding Germany’s highest office for 16 years, the country struggles to achieve equal representation of women and men in government leadership positions. Merkel will finish her term as chancellor later this year. Despite her trailblazing position, two men, Armin Laschet and Markus Soeder, are contending to succeed her.
Germany currently ranks 47th in the percentage of women represented in national parliaments, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the organization measuring those and other statistics worldwide. From the mid-1980s until 2017, the percentage of women in the German federal parliament, or Bundestag, steadily rose from around 10 percent to 37 percent. But that all changed in 2017, when the far-right AfD party (Alternative for Germany) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) won seats in parliament. It was the AfD’s first such win in history since it was established in 2013. And for the first time in more than 30 years, the number of women politicians declined at the federal level.
Both the AfD and FDP are male-dominated parties, and, unlike the political parties that have been most successful in electing women in Germany, neither has gender-compulsory quotas, in which women in the party are required to hold a certain percentage of its seats. The AfD argues that quotas limit free and fair elections, hindering voters’ ability to choose their preferred candidate.
Manuela Moeller, the director of EAF Berlin, a think tank founded in 1995 that aims to bring more diversity to German leadership, is a staunch defender of quotas. “You can see very clearly that quotas were the only way forward toward gender equality in politics,” she said in an interview with PassBlue. She notes that the Green Party in 1983 was the first in the country to enact quotas. Other parties followed, and it may be why the number of women politicians steadily rose until 2017. “You would never have seen that spike [in the mid-80s] had there not been quotas,” Moeller said.
There are 709 seats in the Bundestag, and women currently hold 223, or 31.4 percent. The Green Party (which has a 50 percent quota) has the most women members, with 38 holding 67 of the party’s seats. The AfD has the fewest, with only nine women holding 88 of its seats.
The AfD’s support among the German electorate is part of a trend that numerous European countries have seen in recent years, in which right-wing populist parties have been gaining political ground, including in France, Hungary and Poland.
In Germany, the low number of women in politics is even more glaring at the local level, including in city councils and mayorships. (Only 10 percent of the mayors in the country are women.) That’s where Moeller has especially turned her focus, working with Helene Weber Kolleg (HWK), a nonprofit organization that incentivizes women to join local politics. HWK is supported by the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth.
“More women means more diversity overall, and we have to look at the community level,” Moeller said. “I have been working with more women who are migrants and younger women. Diversity means representation, a better connection to the society it represents, and more new ways of thinking about old problems that are becoming more and more urgent.”
HWK organizes empowerment and mentoring programs, networks and training. It also offers an annual prize to German women in local politics, such as city council and mayor positions, and the prizes include grants of around 1,000 euros (about $1,200) to support projects in recipients’ municipalities, along with an invitation to join a national network of women who hold a range of political positions.
Moeller noted that one of the main aspects of the gender imbalance in politics in Germany and elsewhere is the continuing problem of getting in the door. For women, “they often wait until they’re invited,” whereas with men, “sure, they’re often invited, but the way in which that happens is so different,” Moeller said. From an early age, boys generally see men in positions of power, and as they get older, there are networks that allow them to understand the ways in the door.
Moeller said that HWK, which often mentors younger women and those new in politics, is one of the most influential parts of growing women political leadership in Germany.
Ye-One Rhie, 33, of Aachen, a city in western Germany near the Belgian and Dutch borders, has harbored political aspirations since she was a teenager. She was a 2015 HWK prizewinner and says that its network has been by far the most valuable part of her membership. As a city councilmember for Aachen and a parliament candidate for the Social Democrat Party this year, the network has allowed her to strategize and learn from women all over the country.
“They are women I never would have met had I not been a part of the network,” Rhie told PassBlue. “It’s something that takes time to grow. The bigger the network, the more people we will all know later on.”
This article was updated to better reflect the support among the German electorate of the AfD party, which has increased since it was established in 2013.
PLEASE DONATE TO PASSBLUE AND SUPPORT INDEPENDENT, NONPROFIT MEDIA