Since accusations of sexual assault and harassment by prominent Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein have surfaced, different segments of society, both in the U.S. and Germany, have had to grapple with the issue of power imbalance and abuse. New and disturbing revelations about prominent public figures and celebrities are surfacing daily, revealing that many women (and some men) have been subjected to a variety of harassments (mostly by men) in the professional world. Social media has helped spread awareness of the issue and how deeply it is entrenched in many societies, not least by the #MeToo movement, which has grown to include #MeTooCongress and #MeTooEU. Governments, businesses, and the media are struggling to respond, with some taking immediate action in firing the accused (most recently, Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor) while others have issued apologies and called for ethics reviews. After a hearing on sexual harassment in Congress, the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, announced new and mandatory anti-harassment and discrimination training for all House members and staff.
Legal Protection in Germany and the U.S.
The United States has been more progressive than Germany in offering legal protection for women. In 1980, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled sexual harassment to be a form of sex discrimination, which is prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act. In 1993, the U.S. criminalized marital rape; Germany followed suit four years later.  But until 2016, when the Sexualstrafrecht (criminal law relating to sexual offenses) was reformed in Germany, women only had legal recourse against an attacker when he used or threatened force. The changes in the 2016 law include protection against unwanted advances like groping or touching, i.e., sexual harassment, an expanded definition of rape, and easier prosecution of perpetrators of sexual violence. Even so, the Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, Dr. Katarina Barley, recently commented that sexual harassment should be punished more harshly in Germany.
Certainly, no society, nation, or community is immune to sexual harassment or assault. According to the OECD Violence Against Women Indicator 2014, the prevalence of violence in a woman’s life is 22 percent in Germany and 36 percent in the U.S. Both countries are listed as having laws in place on rape, but the U.S. is stronger in its legal framework granting women legal protection against sexual harassment and domestic violence. However, neither the U.S. nor Germany is among the top five countries that are—for a variety of reasons—the best places to live for women. U.S. News and World Report ranks Germany #11 and the U.S. #16. Maybe not surprisingly, several northern European countries are rated at the top, with Canada rounding out the top 5.
How to Change Society and Make Women Equal
Sexual harassment of women is rampant in the professional sphere, on public transportation, and on the street, and abuse happens by strangers and within families. Patriarchal societies often foster a dismissive attitude toward women and there seems to be a correlation between gender equality and violence against women. Attitudes are fostered early and within the confines of the home, with experts suggesting that children learn to undervalue women at home, from their parents. It appears that the more egalitarian a country, in terms of women’s representation in politics and business, combined with an egalitarian family leave situation, the better the situation for women in those countries, also when it comes to becoming victims of violence and harassment.
In 2015, Germany passed a law requiring that women hold at least 30 percent of the seats on the top boards of publicly traded companies. The law went into effect in January 2016 but has had only moderate results—it is not enforced—and as of January 2017, only 45 women (6.7 percent) sit on the executive boards of 160 companies, compared to 630 men. In the U.S., only 32 of the Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs (a staggering 6.4 percent). In the 115th Congress, 21 women (21 percent) serve in the Senate and 84 women (19.3 percent) serve in the House of Representatives. Germany’s newly elected Bundestag is more male than before, with 218 of the 709 members women (31 percent). Germany has had a female chancellor for twelve years, but that doesn’t seem to trickle down to the rest of the female population and, as Katrin Bennhold notes, there are “more C.E.O.s named “Thomas” (seven) than C.E.O.s who are women (three) in Germany’s 160 publicly traded companies.” Female bosses are hard to come by. Few will dispute that Hillary Clinton’s gender did not help her bid for the U.S. presidency.
However, gender equality is valued in both countries. Germany is certainly creative and has taken it to another level: the street. Several German cities, including Berlin and Düsseldorf, instituted a quota system that requires streets and plazas to be named equally after women and men. Never mind that, in some cases, it will take decades to reach parity. Some neighborhoods in Berlin have been trying hard for over a decade. Especially in Berlin Mitte, street names have long female names, e.g., Margarete-Steffin-Straße is right next to Adele-Schreiber-Krieger-Straße and you will also find the Marie-Elisabeth-Lüders-Haus there. Difficult names to remember but maybe an indication for the youngest members of society that women are as important as men and ought to be respected and valued—and not groped.
If not taking on the husband’s last name serves as an indicator for gender equality, then both Germany and the U.S. are in bad shape. Roughly 20 percent of women keep their names in both countries. Some studies show that women who keep their maiden name are viewed as being less committed, and men who take the wife’s last name are ridiculed by their peers. Granted, China as well as several European countries do not follow the tradition of one family name—women keep their names when they marry—and gender equality is not a priority in these countries.
Despite its legal advances, the U.S. is still a male-dominated society. From 1953 to 1978, the U.S. weather service used only female names for storms—does that inspire respect? The streets of Washington, DC, do not show much gender-inspired consciousness: while all 50 states are represented in the city’s avenues, street names do not typically indicate whether the name’s originator is male or female and the plazas, circles, and squares are mostly male (L’Enfant, Dupont, Scott, Sheridan, Logan), as are the city’s bridges (Roosevelt, Key, Taft). In fact, only one circle is clearly named after a woman: Anna J. Cooper Circle. All three major local airports are named after men, a president (Ronald Reagan), a secretary of state (John Foster Dulles), and a Supreme Court justice (Thurgood Marshall).
Washington is full of powerful, educated men and women. Most of the leaders of the top think tanks, however, are male. All-male panels (“Manels”) still regularly occur, and platitudes like “We tried to find a qualified woman” are still lazily—and falsely—used. Nicknames for women (“Kiddo,” “Schatzi,” or “Maus”) in a professional environment persist, and demean a woman’s status in the office.
It seems that both societies have a long way to go before women can relax. In the meantime, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark look mighty good.
Susanne Dieper is the Director of Programs and Grants at AICGS. Follow her on Twitter @SusanneDieper.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.
 To review the complex legal history of marital rape in the U.S., see “Marital Rape: History, Research, and Practice,” Trauma, Violence, & Abuse Vol 4, Issue 3 (July 2003), pp 228-246, https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/publications/abstract.aspx?ID=201457
 OECD (2017), Violence Against Women (indicator). doi: 10.1787/f1eb4876-en (Accessed November 16, 2017). The Indicator measures “the percentage of women who have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner at some time in their life.”