The Politics of Sexual Harassment. A Comparative Study of the United States, the European Union, and Germany by Kathrin S. Zippel
|Reviewed By:||Sabine Lang|
|Reviewed in:||The Journal of Politics|
|Date accepted online:||02/11/2007|
|Published in print:||Volume 69, Issue 2, Pages 587-594|
The author rightfully debunks a number of conceptual frameworks that have been used in the gender equality debates of recent years as insufficient explanatory variables for her specific cases. Neither the existence of a strong male breadwinner orientation nor strong feminist movement cultures can in and of themselves explain the particular framing and implementation of sexual harassment policies in these three political entities. The framework that Zippel introduces instead focuses on the specific mode of regulation that informs the institutional culture of her cases: For the United States, she traces a legal-regulatory route, for Germany a statutory-corporatist and for the European Union a bureaucratic expert-driven route.
Process clearly informs outcome, with different actors in each case framing the debates. Whereas in the United States individual cases and court hearings provided platforms for social intervention, the European Union instigated change with the help of strong women's units. Germany, by contrast, turns out to be the quintessential laggard in regard to sexual harassment. The lack of an explicit antidiscrimination law resulted in there being no clear legal basis for a sexual harassment claim, in courts considering it a private matter, and in it being individualized because class action suits were not allowed. In effect, using litigation to fight sexual harassment was not really an option for German feminists until the mid-1990s. This changed with the 1995 Federal Employee Protection Law, but Zippel argues convincingly that this law is nothing more than a minimalist response by a conservative coalition to EU demands. The new law does not define sexual harassment as sexual discrimination, and it does not focus on the outcome, but on the intentionality of sexual harassment-thus avoiding the gender equality paradigm and putting the burden of proof onto the plaintiff who has to convince judges of the intentions of a harasser. The German law therefore falls short on the two issues discussed as central within the EU legislative process as well as in the United States. This confirms Zippel's point that legal frames and structures matter, but generally reflect more broader societal constellations. Only in the U.S. case, Zippel argues, did the political institutions and, most significantly, the courts historically have to confront victims of sexual harassment. And only in the United States did feminist legal and political expertise find a venue to enter the playing field through amicus briefs and class action suits. Whereas in the European Union, incremental policy change was achieved by bureaucratic means with the help of strong femocrats in the Brussels executive branch, German policies were devised behind closed doors and with little input by actual plaintiffs or concerned social actors.
By situating sexual harassment in the gender equality paradigm, Kathrin Zippel shows how other frames such as "mobbing" and "violation of workers' dignity"-most predominantly used in the conservative German case-in effect avoid addressing the central issues at stake. Not only does it matter how laws define sexual harassment, but specific frames open up different discursive opportunity structures for labor and feminist activists. Again, Zippel makes a convincing case that in the United States and the European Union, gender-sensitive frames entered the legal language early on, whereas in the androcentric culture of Germany, legal frameworks as well as union, employer and party positions reflect seemingly gender neutral but in fact discriminatory language that did not take specific gender hierarchies into account.
One of the arguments presented in this study that will find an engaging audience beyond legal experts, feminist scholars, and advocates deals with the question of how ideas travel. Kathrin Zippel reconstructs how it was primarily the personal experiences of German academics and activists in the United States that provided the sensitizing input for translating issues into a German context. She claims that it is first and foremost through these transnational advocacy networks that sexual harassment was introduced and forced on the German political agenda. While I agree with the role that a few individual women played in mobilizing for the issue after having visited the United States, it remains unclear how that translates into what the author considers to be sustained influence of networks over time. Revising Kekk/Sikking's boomerang effect thesis, Zippel encounters what she terms a "ping pong" effect in the travails of the sexual harassment frame, visible most prominently in the interaction between Germany and the constant EU reprimands for inaction. Whether one calls it "ping pong," or assumes that the boomerang effect can take multiple venues in different actor constellations,
Overall, this book deserves to have an audience far beyond those interested in feminist politics, providing insights for comparative legal studies, social movement analysis, and for the emerging field of transnational relations.