Women in leadership positions is still a rare occurance in Germany. Why is that? Successful female bosses used an opportunity to meet with the chancellor and tell her just what's needed.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel bluntly asked the women from the outset to share their experiences. Especially any difficulties they faced when it came to advancing their careers. The discussion at the chancellery was merciless and lively – entrepreneurs, mayors and scientists did not mince their words. One hundred women, who are, or are aiming to be, top in their chosen field, sat in illustrious company with the chancellor. While she controls the government, no woman heads any of Germany's 30 major companies. So, there is a lot to talk about.
Some of the experiences the women talked about were so absurd that laughter echoed through the hall. Innes Kolmsee, for example, the CEO of German manufacturing company SKW Stahl Metal was denied a tax-card from the Bavarian taxation office when she married – their reasoning – that as a wife she would no longer have to work. As a mother she was required to obtain a certificate from the company's boss in order to work. "I am the boss," she told stunned officials.
Entrenched gender roles
The traditional roles women play in society are still entrenched in the minds of many, as Sigrid Nikutta, CEO of Berlin's public transport company explained. "My colleagues deliberately arranged meetings at 8:00 p.m. to see how I would mange things with four children." At the time there was no daycare, schools closed at lunchtime, so I had to rely on my partner, or the nanny.
"By 5:00 p.m. offices in Sweden are empty," said Kolmsee. There, many fathers collect their children from kindergarten or school. In Germany though, you are considered to be hard working and committed to your job if you stay long hours in office. For mothers who are executives, this is exceptionally hard. Kolmsee is convinced "meetings at 8:00 p.m. wouldn't happen if men and women shared the domestic duties." Yet men are ridiculed when they leave work to look after their children. And then there are large German companies that offer permanent positions to male trainees, but not to female ones. "Surely you want to start a family," the women here chimed succinctly.
Even Germany's first female chancellor is not immune to gender stereotyping, she admits candidly. She was asked recently if a woman with children could be the chancellor. They quipped that it was hardly possible, Merkel said. "Then I suddenly realized, Helmut Kohl also has children."
The state could do more
Changing people's mindset takes time, but policy makers could act a little faster, the high-flying women demanded. In other European countries, like France, the state pays for childcare. But not in Germany, where there are not even enough places in childcare for every child. For years the federal government has been promising to help, but development is slow-going. Merkel made notes as the bosses called for private childcare to come with tax benefits. But the government's plans are somewhat different: mothers who educate their children at home are to receive a "care allowance." A plan widely rejected by the women present.
In part, a hostile environment was the reason, said Marion Kiechle, why many young women decided against a career. "They say, under these conditions, I am not ready to start a family." Kiechle, a clinic director in Munich, added that women in Germany were often paid less than men for doing exactly the same job, head doctors included. And last, but not least, part-time executive positions are relatively unheard of.
Postponed for the time being
Across the boards of Germany's 200 largest companies, women make up a meager four percent. The chancellor wants a minimum quota to be written into law – but, only after September's federal election. The plan is, by 2020, that 30 percent of board member positions will be filled by women. "When women make up more than 50-percent of the population, a quota of 30-percent is not unreasonable," commented Merkel.
Opinions about the quota's benefit were divided amongst the women meeting with Merkel: it accelerates equality, but is not a remedy. Experienced executives told junior staff present that women should look for a mentor and not shy away. Combined with the professional qualifications they had, this could be way to help opening the doors to the top.