BERLIN — Angela Merkel, Germany’s first female chancellor, has been praised by many for her pragmatic leadership in a turbulent world and celebrated by some as a feminist icon. But a look at her track record over her 16 years at Germany’s helm reveals missed opportunities for fighting gender inequality at home.
Named “The World’s Most Powerful Woman” by Forbes magazine for the last 10 years in a row, Merkel has been cast as a powerful defender of liberal values in the West. She has easily stood her ground at male-dominated summits with leaders such as former President Donald Trump or Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Millions of women admire the 67-year-old for breaking through the glass ceiling of male dominance in politics, and she’s been lauded as an role model for girls.
On trips to Africa, the Middle East and Asia, Merkel has often made a point of visiting women’s rights projects. She has always stressed that giving women in poor countries better access to education and work is key to those nations’ development.
But when it comes to the situation of women in Germany, Merkel — who said in 2018 that she wouldn’t seek reelection in today’s general election — has been criticized for not using her position enough to push for more gender equality.
“One thing is clear: a woman has demonstrated that women can do it,” said Alice Schwarzer, Germany’s most famous feminist. “However, one female chancellor alone doesn’t make for emancipation.”
Schwarzer, the 78-year-old women’s rights activist, is the most prominent founding member of the German women’s liberation movement, both loved and loathed in the country.
“She’s the first one who made it all the way to the top,” added Schwarzer, who has met Merkel for several one-on-one dinners over the years. “But has she done anything for women’s policy aside from her sheer presence? Honestly, not a lot.”
German women have even seen some setbacks during Merkel’s reign. Before Merkel took office in 2005, 23 percent of federal lawmakers for her center-right Union bloc were women. Today, the figure is 19.9 percent. Only the far-right Alternative for Germany party, with 10.9 percent, has fewer female lawmakers.
Germany also lags behind other European countries when it comes to equal political representation.
In 2020, the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments and governments was 31.4 percent in Germany, well below Sweden’s 49.6 percent, Belgium’s 43.3 percent or Spain’s 42.2 percent, according to the European Union statistics agency Eurostat.
Women also remain second-class citizens in Germany’s working world. Last year, only 14.6 percent of top-level managers in big listed German companies were women. Germany also has one of the biggest gender pay gaps in the EU, with women earning 18 percent less than men in 2020, according to the Federal Statistical Office.
Some experts say Merkel has pressed for more power for women in indirect ways.
“Angela Merkel did not take up her job with the claim to use her role as chancellor for the support of women or making gender equality her vested interest,” said Julia Reuschenbach, a political analyst at the University of Bonn. “However, she did very much engage in promoting other women in politics.”