Stern magazine journalist Laura Himmelreich claims that 67-year-old Rainer Bruederle, a leading member of the governing Free Democratic Party, told her last year that she "could also fill out a dirndl"—the low-cut dress often worn by waitresses at Bavarian beer fests.
The allegations have sparked heated debates on German TV and in newspapers. But it was a weeklong flurry of tweets with the label "Aufschrei"—German for outcry—that seems to have emboldened women to speak out about everyday sexism in the country, said Christine Lueders, chief of the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency.
"We saw a sharp rise in calls that are clearly linked to the debate over this case," Lueders told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "Twitter has given ordinary women the opportunity to speak openly about the issue."
Bruederle hasn't commented on the allegations. But party officials question the timing of Himmelreich's claims, made in an article days after Bruederle became the FDP's top candidate in upcoming national elections.
Lueders declined to discuss the case directly, but said the debate surrounding it showed that German society has yet to catch up with legislation that came into force in 2006 outlawing workplace discrimination based on sex, age, disability or race. Previous anti-discrimination rules applied largely to the state, but not private companies.
"Women need to leave behind their fear of losing their job," she said. "It's the men who risk being fired, not the women they harass."
According to estimates, at least half of all German women have experienced unwanted advances or other forms of sexual harassment at work, Lueders said.
The National Council of German Women's Organizations on Wednesday welcomed the discussion taking place online and in traditional media.
"We need a consensus across society about where the limits are," the group said in a statement. "Let's hope that the current debate helps take us a little further in that direction."