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COVID: Nurses and carers are the heroines of the pandemic 11.03.2021

The coronavirus pandemic has put extra strain on nurses and carers in Germany. Both roles tend to be filled by women, who earn substantially less than their male counterparts.

Katrin Berger can put on her protective gear in a matter of seconds: disinfectant, plastic medical hood, FFP3 mask. The nurse works in the intensive care unit at the Helios hospital in Berlin-Buch. She’s been there 26 years. She’s surrounded by machines, pipes, medication — and many fellow women.

They have been working flat out for a year now, round the clock, treating coronavirus patients. 

“Firstly there’s the physical demands, which are enormous. But the psychological component plays a large role too,” Berger says. It’s routing for her to deal with severely ill patients, she says, but what’s new is that those patients present a contamination risk to her as well. 

A few kilometers away, Dörte Herrmann rapidly strides along the corridor of the Volkssolidarität care home in Berlin. She’s a carer and a team leader, her team consisting almost exclusively of women. 

“Yes, we have a lot of female colleagues,” she says. And why might that imbalance exist? She suspects that salaries play a large role. “If this were a male domain, then the women would also earn very differently!”

Bad pay, unsociable working hours

In the care sector, 90% of staff are women according to the German Federation of Trade Unions. The imbalance is particularly stark in old people’s homes. Yet despite being in a massive majority, female care workers 10% less than their male colleagues on average, even in similar roles. 

On top of this poor pay, they must contend with poor prospects of promotion.

Carers work unsociable hours. Dörte Herrmann regularly worked nights for more than 10 years as part of her duties. For 26-year veteran Katrin Berger, they’re shifts she still does. 

The combination of an increased workload and poor pay has taken its toll: Figures from the German Labor Ministry this week showed that just in the first months of the pandemic, between April and July, an estimated 5,124 nurses and 3,885 care home workers had quit.

Nurse Katrin Berger says she was looking forward to the extra funds made available, dubbed the “corona bonus,” for frontline hospitals and facilities, but the extra money’s yet to arrive at her hospital.

But the 46-year-old believes that nobody would do her job just for the money anyway. “Particularly the female nurses are always enthusiastic and give their lifeblood. Otherwise, the job doesn’t work.” 

Germany’s overall gender pay gap is among the highest in the EU. The health and social care sectors are one of the more imbalanced ones, where women’s pre-tax hourly rates are on average 25% lower than male colleagues. Authorities say a large part of this gap can be explained by structural factors: many female-dominated work environments are poorly paid, and women working in them often don’t reach better paid, more senior positions. 

Dörte Herrmann was no stranger to this phenomenon. Her husband is also a care worker and for a long time earned more than her. But now, as team leader, she’s caught him up, she says proudly, as she marches from a team meeting to the temporary hairdressing corner of the care home: It’s haircut day for the residents.

Dörte Herrmann watching a carer wash an old lady's hair

Teamleader Dörte Herrmann would like to see social recognition for her work

Still lacking recognition

But perhaps what matters even more to both women than their remuneration is how much society values their work. Dörte Herrmann says she’s become accustomed to this lacking in recent years.

“Often, we’re seen as the ass-wipers. Nothing more,” she says.

When people were clapping for care workers on their balconies at the start of the pandemic, she says she suddenly felt seen. 

Katrin Berger says the pandemic showed people how important her work was. But the applause faded long ago. For many people, Dörte Hermann says, they’re seen as just the care staff, or the cleaning staff, or the kitchen workers. But if just one of those is missing, suddenly her whole team can’t function. Her wish to improve matters? “I’d like women in this line of work to at least stop making themselves out to be less important than they are.” 

This article has been translated from German.

While you’re here: Starting on March 16, DW editors will round up for you what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year’s elections and beyond. Sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

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