How Do We Achieve Gender Equality at the Workplace?

Questions & Answers

Interview with Jun.-Prof. Dr. Susanne Steffes

ZEW researcher Susanne Steffes explains in an interview how we achieve gender equality at the workplace.

Family leaves, part-time work, poorly paid jobs – the causes for the different income levels between women and men are many. In Germany, women currently earn on average 19 per cent less than men.

ZEW researcher Susanne Steffes talks in this interview about gender quotas, including current challenges and associated employee perspectives.

Has the gender income gap moved?

Much has improved over the past few decades. The wage gap used to be even larger, and it is gratifying that the gender gap is narrowing. But at 19 per cent, there is still a striking difference between the pay levels of men and women. Many factors can explain it, but there’s a part that resists explanation.

Career choices, part-time work, parental leave – all of this explains why women earn less and are much less likely to hold management positions. But if you compare women who work in positions similar to those of men, there is still a six per cent wage gap. This may be because women do a poor job negotiating their contracts or do not demand more money. On average, they are less competitive and less willing to take risks than men. These are all factors that can account for the remaining six per cent.

Do qualifications play a role?

There are definitely differences between qualifications. For example, highly qualified women are more involved in the labour market than low-skilled women. When they have children, they get back to work more quickly and work part-time less often. Of course, this helps them to ensure that the wage gap with men does not become too large. In addition, highly qualified women are also more likely to take management positions. The gender differences are nevertheless striking.

When it comes to discrepancies between salaries and positions, it is important to think not only about the differences between women and men, but also about the differences between groups of women. While in many industrialised countries around the world, the income gap is decreasing between women and men, it is increasing between low-skilled and high-skilled women.

How do employees respond to gender quotas?

Basically, there are two ways of responding to a quota: You can view them as fair because you recognise that the group favoured by the quota was previously disadvantaged. Or you can reject a quota because you think that performance should be the main assessment criterion, and assert that a quota favours people who underperform at work.

We surveyed people about their attitudes to gender quotas. We found that there is a high proportion of employees who agree with quotas. But there is also a significant share who find them unfair. Men are more often against quotas than women. The justice argument is much more pronounced among women, whereas the performance argument is much more pronounced among men, especially when they feel threatened by the quotas.

The justice argument is particularly strong among employees who observe injustices in decisions regarding management positions. The link between previous perceptions of injustice and the belief in the necessity of a quota was clear in our study.

What about Germany’s Wage Transparency Act? Has it contributed to more gender equality?

The law is relatively new, and so far, there has been little research on the subject. However, I doubt whether it will have much effect in terms of narrowing the income gap. What we can say now is that very few people have taken advantage of the law, which requires asking an employer to recalculate your proper income.


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Jun.-Prof. Dr. Susanne Steffes
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Yvonne Bräutigam, MSc
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