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Oh Josef!

February 8, 2011

Where exactly does Deutsche Bank stand on affirmative action for women? The bank says it's committed to promoting women in management, but critics say an offhand comment from CEO Josef Ackermann suggests otherwise.

Josef Ackermann
Ackermann: Old school gentleman or chauvinist?

The gaffe-prone CEO of Deutsche Bank, Josef Ackermann, has done it again.

Despite treading carefully around the media in the years that followed his infamous flashing of the victory sign as he entered a courthouse to face corruption charges in 2004, Ackermann is now taking flak over a chauvinist remark he made at the bank's annual press conference last week.

Asked about the current debate on whether Germany should set quotas for the number of women on company boards - as Norway, Spain, and France have done - Ackermann admitted that there are no women on Deutsche Bank's executive committee. "But I hope that it will one day be more colorful - and prettier, too," he added.

Ilse Aigner
Consumer Affairs Minister Ilse Aigner was not amused by Ackermann's commentsImage: dapd

As expected, reactions from powerful women in German politics were quick to follow. "Those who want things to be prettier and more colorful should go to a flower meadow or a museum," Ilse Aigner, minister for consumer affairs, told the business daily Handelsblatt.

"If Mr Ackermann wants more color on the board, he should hang some paintings on the wall," Silvana Koch-Mehrin (FDP), a member of the European parliament, told the newspaper. "Women in leadership positions don't see themselves as decorative objects, and that certainly goes for female managers at Deutsche Bank."

A leading FDP politician in Hamburg, Katja Suding, also commented on Ackermann's "embarrassing faux pas," saying it was an insult to women who have worked hard to advance themselves in their careers.

Remarks taken out of context, bank says

But at least one woman at Deutsche Bank feels such reactions are overblown. Eileen Taylor, who oversees diversity issues for the group globally, told Reuters that she was surprised at the public reaction to Ackermann's spontaneous remarks on women in leadership positions.

Ackermann flashes a V for victory
Ackermann's 'V for victory' ahead of a 2004 corruption trial landed him in hot waterImage: AP

Taylor said that while Ackermann spoke out against mandatory quotas for female employees at the press conference, he also said he felt it was important to bring more women into management positions. "Here at Deutsche Bank, we have women who aren't in need of a quota," Ackermann said. According to Taylor, those statements represent the CEO's true position.

Ackermann's spokesman also defended his boss, saying his remarks were taken out of context and describing the 63-year-old Swiss banker as "a gentleman of the old school."

Yet the fact remains that Deutsche Bank is lagging behind other German financial groups when it comes to promoting women executives. Women make up 44.3 percent of all Deutsche Bank staff, but only 16.1 percent of senior managers. In contrast, data from 2009 revealed that 23 percent of senior management at rival bank Commerzbank was female, while insurance giants Munich Re and Allianz tallied 23.2 and 32 percent respectively.

Germany at pains to improve poor track record

The debate over affirmative action in German industry is heating up as the country seeks to improve its track record when it comes to female representation in senior management. Despite having many women in positions of political leadership – including Chancellor Angela Merkel - the corporate world has lagged behind.

Of the 30 companies that make up the country's blue-chip DAX stock index, which includes Deutsche Bank, only three currently have a female management board member.

Other European countries are turning to quotas to redress the gender imbalance. Spain, France, and the Netherlands have all started or finished the process of mandating female quotas by law. Norway, which passed such a law in 2002, now has 44.2 percent of seats on management boards occupied by women.

Author: Deanne Corbett (AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Sam Edmonds