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A question of culture?

December 3, 2010

The Green party has received a mixed response from all sides for its aim of setting a legal quota for top management posts. There's hardly any consensus on the issue - whether in the world of politics or of business.

A woman in an office on the phone
Women are underrepresented in German top managementImage: dpa

Germany's Green party wants 40 percent of positions on executive and supervisory boards to be filled by women. But politicians and businesspeople alike are far from consensus when it comes to introducing a legal quota.

"Germany is a late starter," said Green party leader Renate Kuenast during a parliamentary debate on the subject on Friday. "Employers haven't moved into the 21st century yet. If women are better educated than men, why do we keep employing the worse candidates?"

Women only make up 10 percent of advisory boards in Germany. In Norway, where such a quota was introduced in 2006, one-third of supervisory board members are women.

In terms of management boards, Germany fares even worse - only 2 percent include women.

Sweden ranks at the top of the list for women on managerial boards. There, 17 percent of company executives are female. The US and Great Britain are close behind, with 14 percent.

Those in favor of a quota say it's the only way to increase the number of women in German boardrooms.

Lagging behind

Renate Kuenast
Kuenast says Germany is lagging behindImage: dapd

"For almost 10 years, German industry has had an obligation to bring more women into management positions and to achieve a certain amount of parity," Petra Ledendecker, the president of the Association for German Businesswomen, told Deutsche Welle. "Nothing has happened in these 10 years, so we think that without a quota, we can't achieve this."

German society has been slow to break away from stereotypical gender roles. Until 1977 women had to have their husbands' permission to go to work.

What needs to be changed is the culture, Ledendecker said. But companies don't want to change, and bringing more women into top management is low on their priority list, she added.

"My experience in Germany's biggest companies is that men show the biggest resistance, and there are alliances who say no way," she said.

Fear of stigmatization

But such men are not alone. Marie-Christine Ostermann, chairwoman of the German Association of Young Entrepreneurs, think quotas could do more harm than good, by stigmatizing women.

"I would never want to be reduced to a quota," she said. "I would want to get a job because of my qualifications, not because of my sex."

Marie-Christine Ostermann
Ostermann would be mortified to be chosen on the basis of her sexImage: DW-TV

Other opponents, such as the German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK), say that a quota for women in management would lead to more bureaucracy and would be too restrictive.

They also argue that quotas don't actually address the underlying reasons why few women can be found in top management.

"We think that it's fundamental that we make having a family and a career more compatible, because only in this way can we ensure that women are able to work without long interruptions, after having a child," said Anne Zimmermann, head of the DIHK's social security, healthcare and family life unit.

The DIHK introduced family-friendly flexible working hours four years ago, but that hasn't changed the situation on its managerial board. Only one of its 14 top management and departmental head positions is held by a woman.

Zimmermann said another problem was that women chose to study the wrong subjects.

"Women make very narrow career choices," she said. "They tend to go for service sector jobs and careers that have less to do with [science and technology]. So they choose career paths that don't take them into the big companies and therefore don't lead to the top jobs on executive and supervisory boards."

As in the outside world, the debate in parliament elicited mixed reactions on Friday, with the opposition Greens, Social Democrats and Left party largely in favor of a quota system, and the ruling coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats against one.

Author: Natalia Dannenberg
Editor: Nancy Isenson