Chancellor Angela Merkel stood out among the attendees of the World Economic Forum, both as a woman and as a high-ranking leader. Amid a dearth of other top-tier politicians at the podium, her speech gained additional weight. She addressed the need to retain international order, free trade and globalization, while warning against populism, unilateralism and destroying the openness the world currently enjoys.
"There is a new approach that we see in the world today, an approach that harbors doubts as to the validity of the international system," she said. "I think we ought to say we are ready to look at established institutions but reform them so that the balance of power is actually realistically reflected in the way that they are built up."
Also today, German newspaper Die Zeit published an interview with Merkel where she spoke about being a female leader. Merkel said that equality was logical in all areas of life, but that looking back to her time studying physics, she recalled that she had found the men around her in charge at university. She got the same feeling when she became a politician. “I gained a sense of the disadvantages women struggle with, as I experienced them in many areas of life myself,” she said.
The chancellor responded to a question about why she was reluctant to call herself a feminist, saying that usually it’s a term for women who fight for women’s rights. “But of course, as a woman, I have to make my way, so that one day, there’ll be equality between men and women.”
There are areas where women struggle as they first have to establish new patterns as newcomers. Merkel noted that without the loud, deep voice of a man, she had to learn to project authority. And she added that clothing was also an issue — men can wear a navy blue suit 100 days in a row without anyone caring, “whereas if I wear the same blazer four times in a fortnight, everybody gets excited.”
Being a woman hadn’t made it easier to be a chancellor, Merkel told Die Zeit. “I was attacked just as much during the financial crisis, and the refugee crisis, as if I had been a man,” she said.
She noted dryly that one of the good things about being a female chancellor was that her husband hadn’t been expected to resign from his job, as would have been the case for a first lady married to a male chancellor. He could carry on as a scientist; in the past, first ladies have been expected to volunteer.
Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, also spoke about her upbringing. She understands the frustration many from the region feel, and noted that men and women weren’t equal there either. East German politicians were almost entirely male, providing her with no role models. But women were very common in the workplace, making it easier to balance work and family life — and providing her with professional examples and shaping her sensibility.
Still, the former East Germany has yet to catch up to the west, leaving Merkel to wonder how long the inequality will continue. Maybe the next generation of politicians will have the answer.
Allison Williams is deputy editor of Handelsblatt Today. To contact the author: [email protected]