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For German Women, Glass Ceiling Hangs Low

Andreas Leixnering (dsl)July 10, 2004

Pharmaceutical giant Schering announced this week it would appoint Karin Dorrepaal to its executive board – a sad first for Germany. No other industrial nation has as few female top managers as Germany.

Karin Dorrepaal is the first woman to serve on a major German boardImage: Schering

German boardrooms still remain a men’s club. But come Sept. 2005, things may start to change. Karin Dorrepaal, a native of The Netherlands, is then set to become the only woman to join the executive board of one of the 30 blue chip companies listed on the German Stock Index. She’s got two degrees in psychology and obtained a doctorate of medicine for her cancer research. To top it all off, she’s also the holder of an MBA. Until 1990 Dorrepaal worked at the Dutch Cancer Research center; after that she moved to the Amsterdam offices of the business consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton. In 2000, she became the company’s vice president, taking responsibility for the consultancy’s work with pharmaceutical companies.

Schering headquarters in BerlinImage: AP

She’s had an impressive career – one that also persuaded Schering executives she was the right candidate. Nonetheless, Dorrepaal is still relatively unknown within the company. Schering first worked with 43-year-old Dorrepaal during a restructuring of its operations and marketing divisions. "Dr. Dorrepaal's deep understanding of the pharmaceutical industry together with her experience in the strategic repositioning of top tier companies and in optimizing their performance will further strengthen Schering's management team," Hubertus Erlen, chairman of Schering’s executive board said in a statement.

Women moving to the top

Schering’s appointment of Dorrepaal is one of several signs in recent weeks that the business climate is changing for women in Germany. Recently, economist Beatrice Weder di Mauro got appointed to Germany’s prestigious Council of Economic Advisors, a panel of top-ranking economists that guides the federal government on economic decision-making. It was the fist time in the "panel of wisemen's" 41-year history that it had brought a woman into its ranks. On top of all that, the German Association of Young Entrepreneurs (BJU) recently appointed 38-year-old businesswoman Karoline Beck as its president.

Over at Citibank, the subsidiary of the world’s largest financial services company, Citigroup, American Sue Hartnett recently took over the helm of the company’s German operations after her predecessor, Christine Licci, unexpectedly resigned in May. And it doesn’t stop there: economics professor Lucrezia Reichlin is considered by many to be the top candidate to lead the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW).

Yet despite these advances, management circles in German business are still a man’s world. A meager 11 percent of German companies have a woman in management positions, compared to an EU average of 14 percent. With 40 percent, the United States and Canada are way, way ahead.

Germany’s scarlet letter for working moms

Mutter mit Kind
Since World War II, German women have been told that raising a family is the job they were meant to take.Image: das-fotoarchiv.com

Barbara Schaeffer-Hegel, founder of the European Academy for Women in Politics and Business (EAF) in Berlin, attributes the shortfall to German cultural traditions. "The mother ideology of the Third Reich and the conservative women’s’ politics in the postwar time have left deep marks," she explains. "The division of the areas of public and private were cemented with the exclusive responsibility of women for the private areas (of life) – caring for children and ensuring the welfare of the family."

In addition to the mentality, there’s also an institutional problem, the former professor of pedagogy said. The daycare infrastructure in Germany is underdeveloped, as is the preschool system. And companies are often reluctant to trust women with important projects because they could get pregnant at any time. In other words, latent discrimination is perpetuate throughout the business culture here.

"It’s a lot harder to reconcile having a family and a career in Germany than it is in most developing countries and almost all industrial nations," she says.

There’s still an enormous paradox here: Most of the women recently making headlines for making it to the inner circle of managers have been imported from abroad. Karin Dorrepaal is Dutch, Lucrezia Reichlin is Italian and Beatrice Weder di Mauro has dual Swiss and Italian citizenship. But that comes as little surprise to Schaeffer-Hegel.

"The word ‘Rabenmütter’ (a term loosely translated as ‘bad mom with latchkey kids’) only exists in Germany," she says. "In other European countries and in America, women achieve huge things a still manage to have kids. Nor do they feel like bad mothers for doing so. There the infrastructure is better and the prejudices against the women aren’t as big of a strain as they are here."