Lonely at the top

You might think Germany is a politically correct kind of place where women wear the pants – or rather the fetching trouser suits. But in business, you’d be wrong.

Image for Lonely at the top
Sonja Fusati, founder of female lobby Victress. Photo by Sigrid Malmgren

You might think Germany is a politically correct kind of place where women wear the pants – or rather the fetching trouser suits. In politics, that might be the case, partly because many political parties have quotas. But in business, you’d be wrong. A recent study found Germany is at the bottom of the gender diversity league table when it comes to executive boards.

Anke Hoffmann knows about isolation. She’s an executive board member and partner at the Berlin office of Kienbaum, a huge management consultancy firm with offices in 20 countries. In her ten years as a senior consultant, she got used to sexual discrimination and sometimes even harassment.

“It’s like a film,” she says, “Men in top positions think they can extend their power, and they often cross the line. Suddenly you feel hands under the table. You can hardly imagine it.”

Judging how to react can be tricky, she says. “You have to distance yourself from it sometimes. If you’re sitting at a table with five board members, four division managers and then two or three assistants, you can’t just shout, ‘What’s going on here!’ When it happened to me I tried to pull myself away – or whatever you can manage under the table – and then confronted the person afterwards. But that doesn’t make you any friends.”

Hoffmann says the old adage about women having to work twice as hard to achieve half as much definitely applies to her. She believes that Germany’s business culture is saturated with sexism. “It starts with that and goes into intrigue over top management positions,” she says. “I haven’t just experienced that myself – I’ve heard it from a lot of women. Where male networks really play a role – information is leaked or suppressed so that you end up running into a wall.”

State intervention

It was for women like Hoffmann that Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen was speaking when she recently proposed a 30-percent female quota in big business. It was vetoed within 48 hours by the ever-conservative chancellor, but the proposal caught the public imagination. By the end of the week there was hardly a businessman, trade unionist or celebrity who hadn’t been asked what they thought of it.

The idea would affect relatively few people, as it applies only to top management and executive committees. According to Thomas Tuma, business editor for Der Spiegel, that’s around 7,000 jobs at most, but influential ones. In Germany’s working world as a whole, society is fairly well balanced. Of around 40 million people who work for a living, 46 percent are women.

Yet the higher up the ladder, the more the balance tips. In management positions, only 21.7 percent are women. At Hoffmann’s executive board level, it’s down to 3.2 percent in the top 200 German companies.

Pressure mounts per baby

Sigrid Nikutta took over the BVG five months ago. She beat 176 other candidates – including 21 women – for the €400,000-per-year job. She’s never felt stray hands in the boardroom, but she knows all about sexual discrimination – especially when children enter the picture.

“Of course if you’re young and have no children, everyone says, ‘Okay, everything is equal,’” Nikutta says. “But with my first child, the expectation was, ‘Now she will be much quieter; she will relax and focus on the family.’“

The more kids Nikutta had, the more people assumed she would hang up her career. By the time she had her third child, expectations had intensified. “Everyone said, ‘Okay, three children? Now she must stay at home.’ When there were business dates in the evening, people would ask my secretary, ‘Can she come? What’s with the baby?’”

“Your only choice is to take it humorously or get angry,” says Nikutta, “and I decided to take it humorously. But of course no-one asks a man, ‘How are you dealing with your children?’ Men are always saying, ‘Oh I have six children,’ and people just say, ‘What a virile guy.’”

Quota, for or against

Nikutta is in favour of a state-imposed gender quota, but it’s hard to find a male business leader who agrees. In a recent survey, 21 of the 30 DAX companies said they were against them. Eight declined to answer and one was for it – the Munich based insurance giant Allianz, which already has more than 40 percent women in leading positions. But small and medium-sized businesses would face serious short-term upheaval and potential legal difficulties if they had to start firing men and hiring women, even over a five-year period.

Mario Ohoven, president of the association for medium-sized German businesses, has all sorts of anti-quota arguments – constitutional (he says it would breach the freedom of contract) and statistical (he says figures from Norway and Finland show that a quota has little effect) – but he has nothing against women.

“I want to be really clear – our association is in favour of women in leading positions. My father died young and my mother took over and managed the company brilliantly,” he says. “I have real respect for women, and there are women who are better at certain things than us men. But to bring in a quota under the motto, ‘It doesn’t matter what she can do, she’s going to be a manager,’ I’m against that. Women don’t need that.”

Two choices

Sonja Fusati (photo) is a more surprising opponent of the quota. She is the founder of Victress, a lobby group that promotes mixed leadership, and head of her own media consultancy firm. She just

became a mother and doesn’t intend to give up her job. She is dedicated to exploding gender stereotypes but thinks a quota would be counterproductive. Though Fusati acknowledges that attitudes towards working mothers are troubling in Germany, she has faith in the market.

“I’m convinced that mixed leadership – be it gender, age or ethnic diversity – is definitely the way to go,” she says. “It’s just a question of how you get there. And if a company doesn’t feel the need itself, and doesn’t feel it’s lagging behind its competitors who have more diversity, then that’s their problem. The market, in my opinion, will develop towards more diversity.”

Ohoven and Fusati think a quota will damage the economy by imposing disadvantageous restrictions on businesses. For Ohoven, the lack of childcare facilities in Germany is the real impediment to women gaining higher positions. He says if the government wants to do something, it should concentrate on making it easier for companies to provide childcare.

A gentlemen’s agreement won’t do

But the idea of a gender quota is catching on throughout Europe. France just passed a 40-percent female quota in executive committees, to be imposed by 2017. Spain’s 40-percent quota has to be respected by 2015, and the Netherlands is in the process of formulating a law. The European Commission itself is putting increasing pressure on EU states to address the inequality – either in the form of a quota or else a binding agreement of self-regulation in business.

But getting the old boys boardroom to change its ways is not easy. Carlotta Koster-Bröns, head of the Association of German Businesswomen (VDU), points out that German government and business struck a self-regulation deal 10 years ago, and the ratios in the boardroom have hardly changed. She thinks only a law will do.

“You can see that the voluntary method doesn’t work from the example of France,” she says. “France also had an agreement, and it has a childcare infrastructure that looks amazing next to the German one. Now we see that France is also introducing a quota, because apparently the childcare infrastructure is not enough on its own.”

It’s the experience of the last decade that has changed the minds of many politically conservative women. One factor is age – statistics suggest that the older the woman, the more likely she is to be in favour of a quota. As TV presenter Caren Miosga told Der Spiegel, “Life makes you smarter.”

Von der Leyen herself, who started the current storm, also changed her mind in the last few years simply because of the stagnant situation.

But Germany’s working women might have more serious concerns: a study that did not start a media debate last September revealed the depth of inequality in German society. The government-affiliated Institute for Employment Research (IAB) found that German women earned an average of €14.90 an hour, while men earned €19.40 – a 23 percent difference. Only four countries in the 27-member European Union had a bigger discrepancy. EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding gave Europe’s biggest economy a good ticking off, and called Germany’s result “unacceptable”.

Those 7,000 top jobs targeted by the quota debate could be at best the symptom of a much wider problem.