How to Shatter the Glass Ceiling: Sprichst du Deutsch?

ByProjectManhattan(Own Work),CreativeCommons.

She’s worked with dudes named Wolfgang, Helmut, and Vladimir. They’ve been known to call her boring, a beta-female, and clueless. She doesn’t get mad. She gets their jobs.

She’s learned to deflect bullies and has overcome an urge to burst into tears. She was once shot at by the Taliban in a helicopter over Afghanistan and stayed cool as a cucumber.

This boring beta-babe has been in the limelight of late. Five biographies have just been published in Dutch, German, French and English.

Angela’s Office,Jurgen Matern,CreativeCommons.

As for age discrimination, at sixty-three she is in no imminent danger of losing her job. Last Sunday Angela Merkel was re-elected Chancellor of Germany – a title she has shrewdly retained since 2005.

Her path was highlighted in a recent piece by Simon Kuper, “The Making of Angela Merkel” (FT 16 September/17 September), shared here.

“More coffee, Honey?” KSmrq, CreativeCommons.

In case you think she’s just another vacuous, narcissist politician (sorry, that position has been filled) consider her grasp of integral calculus, academic honors in Russian and maths, and her quantum chemist husband. (Your college algebra probably won’t qualify you for their breakfast conversation.)

As Kuper tells it, Merkel’s shift from academia to politics began after the Berlin Wall came down and Chancellor Helmut Kohl “put her in his cabinet as a token female East German.” Helmut may have reconsidered calling her “clueless” when she finessed the job of chancellor from his alpha-buddy Wolfgang Schauble who now works for her as Finance Minister.

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Speaking of narcissist politicians, even after the spurned handshake by the President of the United States, a glad-hander if there ever was one, she has been dubbed by many, the new leader of the Free World. (Pres can be grateful that those reputedly tiny fingers avoided her resolute grip.)

Merkel’s unique talent for glass-shattering came to mind recently when a girlfriend aced a job at a New York investment banking firm. Even as the ink was drying, a woman she knew at the firm called to offer advice – not about marketing analytics but concerning fashion tips. Clothing: not showy. Accessories: not many. Shoes: never Manolo.

Dress for Success. Jean-Jacques Lequeu,1794,BibliothequeNationaledeFrance.

With due respect for deferring to the corporate culture (best to save the vinyl cat suit for afternoon tea) are we misplacing our priorities? Sensible shoes aside, I would guess that identifying the appropriate chancellor’s uniform is a footnote in Angela’s playbook. So what does she know better than color-coordinating and integral calculus? Herself.

“Every great politician has a core,” Kuper writes, “one or two beliefs she won’t trade away.” For Angela, who spent her first thirty-five years negotiating life on the other side of The Wall, her core values rest in “the individual’s freedom to make his or her own life.” How many politicians, or even real humans for that matter, are willing to risk their job for what? Values?


Merkel’s test was the refugee crisis. Kuper cites an anecdote from Matthew Qvortrup’s recent biography concerning her decision to allow in a million refugees in 2015. It wasn’t popular, especially after violence erupted, and had begun to erode her opinion poll approval ratings.

In October 2015 at the EU summit, Germany was advised by Hungary’s Prime Minister Victor Orban to build a fence. “Merkel let a silence fall, then said, ‘I lived a long time behind a fence. It is not something I wish to do again.’” Perhaps we could shatter more ceilings by tearing down fences. You can even do that in a pair of Manolos.