Merkel's misguided modesty

Angela Merkel has two "firsts" to her name. The soon-to-be leader of Germany will be its first female chancellor, and its first who grew up in communist East Germany. Oddly, she's never made much of either first. For Germany's sake, she should.

To those who question her for not campaigning on the interests of women and her fellow easterners, she replies: "A chancellor has German interests."

That egalitarian response would sit well if all were wunderbar in the East and among Germany's women. But an economic and attitudinal wall still divides reunited Germany, and women still hit a glass ceiling in business and politics - more so than in most other industrialized countries.

Mrs. Merkel, once a specialist in quantum chemistry, says reversing Germany's severe joblessness (through needed economic and social-welfare reform) is her top priority. Indeed, economists and media commentary - including this newspaper - repeatedly urge Germany to activate its sluggish economy by moving forward with serious reform.

But the new chancellor, whose right-of-center Christian Democrats have just announced an unusual coalition with rival left-of-center Social Democrats, could help restart Europe's economic engine by making more of an effort to address women's and easterners' issues.

As a woman, Merkel is the exception in German politics - not as a member of parliament, where about a third of the delegates are women (due largely to party quotas), but as a female political leader. The US has its women governors, Germany has had one. It's a late bloomer compared with Britain, Finland, Ireland, Norway, and Latvia, which all elected women to lead their countries.

According to Hoppenstedt, a respected compiler of German business information, women hold only 9 percent of top and middle management jobs in German companies - shockingly low compared to other industrialized countries. Fifty percent of university graduates are women, yet less than 10 percent of tenured professors are.

It's not laws to blame here, but deeply rooted attitudes about women's roles (slowly changing) as well as structural hurdles (limited shopping hours and day-care centers - also improving). These make the already difficult balancing act of family and career even harder.

Attitudes also play an enormous role in the "mental wall" that divides Germany. Americans can relate to their red-blue divide, but 24 percent of west Germans want their physical wall restored, and 12 percent of east Germans do. Accusations abound: the "ossies" are ungrateful whiners; the "wessies" arrogant. And unemployment in the formerly communist part is twice that in the other half.

One has to wish Germany's new chancellor all the best in her endeavors to make a potentially unstable political coalition work and to turn her country around.

But it's not just a matter of the right reform policy.

Because of who she is, Merkel is uniquely qualified to lead, encourage, and set an example with major segments of the population.

In the end, bringing out the potential of these untapped Germans will serve all of Germany.

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