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Working Women Face Upward Battle

Sabina Casagrande
October 29, 2004

Germany is lagging far behind when it comes to women in top managerial positions. Why is it so difficult for women to get ahead in Europe's largest economy?

Women as top managers are still the exception in GermanyImage: BilderBox

Go to any German university campus, and you'll see endless female faces. But in most German boardrooms, the only women you'll see are the ones serving the coffee.

"It's certainly not a question of qualifications," said Jürgen Hindenberg, head of the Association for Further Training at the Chamber of Industry and Commerce (IHK) in Bonn, at the presentation of a new course for female managers. Half of university graduates in Germany are women. But less than 4 percent of them make it into leading management positions.

Renate Schmidt, the Federal Minister for Family Affairs, has said too few women are top managers because of attitude. "The most serious cause for this is still the bias that women are not motivated and suitable enough," according to Schmidt.

But Carlotta Köster from the Confederation of German Employers' Associations (BDA) disagrees. "We cannot back this up with facts," Köster told DW-WORLD.

A career or a family: "a sad development"

Köster said that the dearth of women in executive positions development was mainly due to the "catastrophic situation" of child care in Germany. A woman wanting to climb the career ladder to the top is expected to work longer hours and show more dedication to her job. "But what can she do with her children if she works late or has to go on a business trip?" said Köster.

Jungunternehmerin mit Kind (Anja)
It is very difficult for German women to have both children and a career.Image: Bilderbox

As family structures have changed, and there's no longer a grandmother nearby to help with the children, working women are dependent on public or private childcare facilities. And there are simply too few of them in Germany.

"A lot of women feel that they can't have both children and a career," said Köster. She said a recent study found that 40 percent of women with university degrees between the ages of 30 and 35 do not even have children. "This is a sad development."

BDA figures show that in lower management, the relation of men and women is 50-50. But with a rise in position, the ratio deviates.

Birds of a feather stick together

Various studies suggest that the concept of gender plays a large role here, too. Top positions are associated with common "male" traits, such as aggressiveness and the ability to assert oneself. And these are characteristics, which women "typically" don't have.

But women themselves are also often too modest, said Schmidt. "Women tend to hide their light under a bushel," the minister said in a statement earlier this year.

It is also human nature to favor working with a person who is similar to oneself. Since most top managers are men, they tend to choose younger men to follow in their footsteps. The fact that even women without families who do not want children are less likely to be helped up the career ladder supports this theory.

The old boys networks

"Men have long since recognized the principle of success," Schmidt has said. "You don't just reach your goals through qualifications and hard work, but also through the right contacts."

Is it not about what you know, but rather who you know?Image: Bilderbox

Hence, the old boys networks were born. Mentoring between men has been around for thousands of years. In Greek mythology, Mentor was a friend of Odysseus, who gave advice to his son Telemachus. His name is synonymous with the concept of a faithful and wise adviser.

In the meantime, all large German companies have mentoring and shadowing programs to support young women in their ranks, too. And it makes sense to continue to help them, when you consider the economic costs of educating women, according to Schmidt.

"If Germany wants to remain internationally competitive, it would be economic nonsense to not take advantage of the qualifications of over half of the population: women," she said.

Women must be armed

But while the German economy cannot do without women, they in turn have to be ready for a rough climate. On their career path, women face more and other restraints than men, the IHK's Hindenberg said. Since they're confronted with different challenges, they need different strategies to deal with them.

The IHK, for example, has just announced it will offer a six-month course called "Fit for Success" for women in management positions. But the course doesn't cover rhetoric or communication. Rather, it will teach women the rules of the game in the top echelons and the strategies needed to get there.

Renate Schmidt, Bundesfamilienministerin
Renate Schmidt, Federal Minister of Family Affairs, is a strong proponent of helping women to the top.Image: AP

However, Minister Schmidt (photo) said that women's opportunities cannot be achieved by adapting to the male model of life.

"Rather, we need a model in which not the men set the benchmark, which women must adapt to, but where the needs of women, children and men are the gage," she said in a statement.

A matter of time

According to the IHK, of the 525 board positions in Germany's 100 leading companies, seven are held by women.

One of the few, Karin Dorrepaal, recently became the first woman to be named to the executive board of one of the 30 blue chip companies listed on the German Stock Index, pharmaceutical giant Schering.

Perhaps this appointment marks the beginning of a new era of top female managers. "The number of women in leading positions is slowing but surely rising," BDA's Köster said. "It's just a matter of time, although it's not moving as quickly as we'd like."

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