Employment Discrimination Against Women Knows No Borders

Deepali Gaur Singh

Gender discrimination and conservative socio-political agendas can work against women's right just about anywhere in the world.

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…?


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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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