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'We're behind China and Russia' - divide deepens over gender quota

The latest attempt to reach an agreement on a gender quota in Germany has ended without agreement. Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen wants to introduce a binding quota for employers, but companies want more autonomy.

Businesswoman with mobile phone

Many women struggle to get to the top in Germany

Efforts by the German government to reach a consensus with leading German businesses about introducing a gender quota ended without agreement on Wednesday after talks in Berlin.

German Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen spoke of a meeting with "light and shadows." She criticized the results as "not concrete enough." She said it was acceptable to allow companies more time, but that the process must have an "end point."

Representatives from the country's top thirty listed companies who attended the talks were against the introduction of a quota, but they did pledge to each lay down concrete goals for improving gender equality within their own companies.

Harald Krüger of the German car maker BMW said there had been "a constructive dialogue."

Earlier von der Leyen reiterated her idea on how to best redress the gender imbalance in management-level positions. She wants to introduce a legally-binding quota to ensure that a third of seats on company boards are taken up by women by 2018 or 2020. She claimed that ten years of self-policing hadn't produced any results - at least in the top 200 companies where just 2.5 percent of managers are women.

Ursula von der Leyen

Labor Minister von der Leyen wants rigid quotas for businesses

"Small businesses have already shown that this works, and they've stuck to it, but larger companies haven't - nothing has changed," von der Leyen told German public broadcaster ARD.

"I don't see why women are shut out of banks, or insurance or companies listed on the stock exchange. That's not the case internationally. [Germany is] behind China, Russia; we're on the same level as India. That has to change."

Everyone agrees that has to change. But von der Leyen's desire to introduce a binding quota is vehemently opposed by employers and is more hard-line than her fellow ministers and Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The opposition Green Party is behind von der Leyen. They support the introduction of a female quota for executive positions.

"We've had enough of voluntary strategies laid down by businesses," Green politician Renate Künast told Wednesday's Rheinische Post newspaper. "We finally need a legal quota for women in boardrooms and as managers of large companies."

More flexibility for employers

Family Minister Kristina Schröder is against a rigid quota. Instead she wants to give businesses more time to increase the number of women in management-level jobs by themselves. If the companies haven't managed to do that by 2013, Schröder would introduce a legal obligation for companies to commit to having more women in management.

Top women: Kristina Schröder, Ursula von der Leyen and Angela Merkel

Stuck in the middle: von der Leyen wants to go further than Schröder (left) and Merkel (right)

"Quotas are always a supporting crutch, but sometimes they are necessary, and that's why I'm suggesting a flexible quota, which the companies agree amongst themselves, because that's the way they take much more responsibility for the issue," Schröder said.

The response from company directors has been more cautious. The President of the Federation of German Industry (BDI), Hans-Peter Keitel, has called for companies to accelerate their efforts to increase the number of women in executive roles. In a letter to his members, he rejected the proposals put forward by von der Leyen.

"In the not-too-distant future it will be worth it to have a good reputation in the field of gender equality," Keitel wrote. His organization wants companies to be able to continue to lay down their own goals, as they can at the moment.

"You can't lay down or define this from above, because the conditions and profiles for managerial positions in individual companies are too varied," Keitel argued.

Author: Joanna Impey (AP, epd, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Rob Turner

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