Female master builder says confidence is a key to success | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 07.03.2010
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Female master builder says confidence is a key to success

In Germany, it is not easy for women to reach top managerial positions - but Barbara Schock-Werner is one of those that did. Today, the fate of Cologne's most famous landmark lies in her hands.

The Cologne Cathedral

The famous, soaring cathedral keeps Schock-Werner busy

Being responsible for the state of a gigantic, 762-year-old building is no easy feat, but for Barbara Schock-Werner it is a day job. As the master builder of the Cologne Cathedral, she needs to make executive decisions about all the repair and restoration work that is needed to keep this imposing gothic structure - the world's third-tallest church - in top form.

She divides her work time between her office and the cathedral itself, where she does regular inspections and gives instructions to the workers, ranging from painters and electricians to carpenters and bricklayers. And managing an annual budget of over six million euros ($8.1 million) also keeps this energetic 62-year-old on her toes.

A woman who made it

In the context of this year's International Women's Day, which aims to draw attention to equal rights and equal opportunities, women like Schock-Werner can be seen as a unique success story in a male-dominated society. Due to a persisting image of traditional gender roles, Germany's women still find it difficult to juggle work and motherhood, let alone rise to the top ranks of corporate hierarchies.

Barbara Schock-Werner on top of the Cologne Cathedral

Schock-Werner is responsible for 80 staff members and a multi-million-euro budget

"In the heart, I think we are an old-fashioned society - because people looked at me like I was a miracle," said Schock-Werner. "But don't think I'm a miracle. I'm only a working woman."

Schock-Werner believes that the secret to her success was a good education, self-discipline and confidence. Born into family of manual workers in Ludwigsburg in southern Germany, she was always interested in mathematics and art. Although tertiary education was not considered as an option for women in her family, she managed to get into university and pursued studies in architecture and art history.

"I think my father never really understood why I'm doing all of this," recalled Schock-Werner. "But I still had his support and he helped me in any way he could. That was important for me."

During her long period of studies, Schock-Werner got married and managed to finish her PhD after giving birth to her son, "working on the thesis while the baby was sleeping." Three years later, when her daughter was born, she was invited to lecture at a university and with the help of a nanny she managed work on a part-time basis. She was appointed master builder of the Cologne Cathedral in 1999 - the first woman ever to hold this position.

Not a typical case

A woman in a business suit holding a young child

Juggling work and motherhood is not easy in Germany

For a German woman, Schock-Werner has an unusually successful career. According to Christina Klenner - a gender politics expert at the Hans Boeckler Foundation in Dusseldorf - Germany is a rather conservative country in the field of gender politics, despite the fact that today's young German women often outperform their male counterparts academically.

"Behind this is the image of the male breadwinner and the woman who is responsible for the home," said Klenner.

This mentality makes juggling motherhood and work a difficult or impossible task for many German women. Childcare facilities are limited and often expensive, while women who leave their children in the care of strangers are often stigmatized and branded as bad mothers. These are the main reasons why most German women do not resume full-time work after having children.

However, it must be noted that that this situation is not the same across the whole country. In the states that made up the former East Germany, child supervision facilities are far more widespread, which is the legacy of the region's former socialist structures. Not surprisingly, the amount of women between the ages of 20 and 55 with full-time employment is almost two times higher in eastern Germany.

Glass ceiling German-style

But even childless women in Germany find it harder to reach top positions in the corporate world compared to women in many other western countries. According to the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), women make up only 2.5 percent of executive board members in Germany's 200 biggest companies. According to Christina Klenner, this has something to do with the long-established structures in Germany's corporate world.

A young woman sitting at an office desk and typing

Few German women become top executives

"This has little to do with women having children or lacking the necessary will or abilities," explained Christina Klenner. "When it's already an established boys' club, then it's very difficult for women to get in. We're talking here about male insider relationships at work: one man pulls another man in. There need to be women there in the first place to support other women."

Germany has long been reported to hold a low rank on the European scale of women holding executive positions, lagging far behind countries like Norway.

Klenner believes that women need to show extra courage in order to begin to change these corporate structures. Some need to enter the "lion's dens," as she calls them, and set up a base for recruiting more women. However, she also emphasizes that they should not feel responsible for the discrimination that exists in their society.

Confidence is important

Despite her success, Barbara Schock-Werner also recalls cases of discrimination on her way to the top - for example, the time an annual university award went to the best male student in her year, despite the fact that she was the top candidate. But Schock-Werner never let incidents like this get her down. "In the end, it wasn't really important," she said self-assuredly.

She believes that confidence is an important factor in getting what you want in life, regardless of circumstances. Young women, she thinks, are often not courageous enough to stand up for themselves.

"My female students don't have enough self-confidence to say, 'Here I am. I want to have a good job. I want to have a career,'" said Schock-Werner. "And I'm always telling them, 'Ask for it - don't be afraid! You are good enough.'"

Author: Eva Wutke

Editor: Andreas Illmer

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