Germany wants to bring more women into local government and support those already active through an award for unremunerated posts and a skills and networking scheme. The national initiative seeks to address the fact that only a quarter of German local politicians are women. However, women’s representation in local government has stalled, as broader structural factors – from unpaid care work to informal selection procedures – remain insuperable for many.
Results & Impact
Participants have given positive feedback on the program, pointing to useful training and a reduction in isolation. There is now a group of 50 awardees who constitute an active, cross-party network of peers. By 2015, 65 pairs had taken part in mentoring, with activities including shadowing, seminars and networking. However, representation of women in local politics remains stalled at around 25%.
Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (BMFSFJ), Helene Weber Kolleg, European Academy for Women in Politics and the Economy (EAF Berlin), Frauen Macht Kommune
There are several components to the Helene Weber Kolleg (HWK) scheme. A prize is awarded once every four-year legislative term to outstanding women in unremunerated local politics posts. Parliament selects the nominees, and the jury is chaired by the Federal Ministry. While the winner receives $11,750 and runners-up around $600, all awardees are offered networking opportunities and individual coaching, from career planning to social media training. There is also a nine-month mentoring program for women interested in standing as local candidates. A non-profit, the European Academy for Women in Politics and the Economy, administers the matchmaking of aspiring and established women politicians, and these pairs meet every four to six weeks. They also run seminars and training sessions for both mentees and mentors. HWK also runs campaigns and events to increase the visibility of women in politics, including a travelling exhibition on the women involved in writing Germany’s Basic Law. HWK is additionally improving data collection on gender representation at all levels of politics in Germany. The idea is that clearer data will increase the impetus for action.
Cost & Value
The federal government funds the program with around $300,000 a year.
Running since 2009
The program has not managed to increase the percentage of women politicians at the local level. It is trying to tackle ‘supply-side’ issues by creating a wider pool of interested candidates and strengthening those already active. However, it does not address broader structural issues. As women take on an unequal share of care responsibilities and domestic labour, and make less than men for their remunerated work, they often do not have the time or resources to also take on further unpaid roles in politics. Furthermore, meetings can be late at night, and many important decisions are made in informal settings - such as after-work drinks - that women may not be present at. In Germany, candidates for local government roles are also selected by political parties, rather than through primaries as in the US. Research suggests that informal selection procedures disadvantage outsiders. Sexist attacks on women politicians have also been increasing with the proliferation of social media and rise in extremist parties.
The German government also ran a small, similar initiative of the same name in Tunisia supporting around 20 women in politics after the Arab Spring.
The German government is tackling the stark underrepresentation of women in local politics through a national award, mentoring, and networking scheme.
It is at the local authority level that women are most underrepresented in political decision-making. Only one in four representatives at the local level are women, and rates have not risen for many years. Things become more unequal the smaller the town or city, with some municipalities having no women councillors at all. Furthermore, only one in every ten German mayors are women.
“We have a woman chancellor and women ministers, and 36% representation in the Bundestag, but in smaller cities, women’s representation in politics falls to 25%,” said Julia Leiditz, of the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth.
Helene Weber Kolleg (HWK) aims to increase numbers of women decision-makers and support those already established. It began with an award to celebrate outstanding women in unremunerated local politics posts, which is given out once every four-year legislative term since 2009. (In Germany, many positions in local politics do not have salaries attached.) Nominees from all parties are selected by parliament, and the jury is chaired by the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth. First prize amounts to $11,750, runners-up get $600 to run a project in their hometown, and all winners are offered individual coaching (from career planning to social media training).
“We get very positive feedback from women who have taken part,” Leiditz told us. “It is very hard to be in politics as a woman, especially on the local level. They say they feel very isolated – yet we now have 50 women awardees who make up an active, cross-party network.”
Another component of HWK is the nine-month mentoring program for women who want to stand as first-time candidates. A non-profit, the European Academy for Women in Politics and the Economy (EAF Berlin), sets up pairs of aspiring candidates and elected women – who meet every four to six weeks – and also runs seminars and trainings for both mentees and mentors. By 2015, 65 pairs had taken part. HWK also runs campaigns and events to increase the visibility of women in politics, such as a travelling exhibition on the women involved in writing Germany’s Basic Law.
HWK aims to address ‘supply-side’ issues by creating a wider pool of interested candidates and strengthening those already active. However, women’s 25% representation in local government has stalled, as broader structural factors – from unpaid care work to informal selection procedures – remain insuperable for many.
German women take on an unequal share of care responsibilities and domestic labour, spending approximately 100 minutes more than men each day doing unpaid work. They also make less money for their remunerated work: Germany has one of Europe’s highest gender pay gaps, and in 2016 women’s average hourly earnings were 21% lower than men’s. This results in women having less time and resources to take on further unpaid roles in politics. Furthermore, meetings can be late at night, and studies show many important decisions are made in informal settings – such as post-work drinks – that women’s additional responsibilities may prevent them from being present at.
“Of course, handling children, marriage, a job, and the political work alongside is very challenging,” Leiditz said. “We also have to change the political culture, for example so that meetings are not so late in evenings, and there is someone to look after these women’s kids. The structures and rules are so old, and passed on from generation to generation. This is not something you can change in one day – you have to work really hard on different levels.”
Candidates for local councillor roles in Germany are also selected by political parties, rather than through primaries as in the US. Research suggests that informal selection procedures disadvantage women, in part because ‘outsiders’ find it harder to familiarise themselves with nomination and election processes. Such informal procedures also can lead to women being placed far down candidate lists where they are unlikely to be elected.
Furthermore, sexist attacks on women politicians have been increasing with proliferation of social media and the rise of extremist parties. “We have a big problem with sexism – in the media, in advertising, and everyday sexism. It’s a serious issue that nobody talks about,” said Leiditz.
Despite these challenges, a final aspect of HWK may hold hopes for pushing the government to tackle some of these more intractable structural issues. HWK is improving data collection on women candidates at all levels of politics in Germany. The idea is that evidence on the severity of disparities in representation will increase the impetus for action and focus political will on these issues.
The federal government funds the program with around $300,000 a year, and, despite the hurdles so far, it stands as a global leader. Few other governments are even trying to tackle under-representation in local politics. Germany has also run a similar but smaller initiative supporting around 20 women in politics in post-Arab Spring Tunisia, although this ended in 2015, in part because of the challenges posed by political instability.
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