Dr. Wiebke Ankersen is the managing director of the Allbright Foundation. The foundation, based in Stockholm and Berlin, advocates more diversity in business management bodies. The goal: equal opportunities for women and men. The foundation keeps a red list of companies that do not have women in management positions – and communicates the problem to the public.
Personal-Financial.com: The coalition has long fought over the quota for women in large companies. Now there is an agreement and it should be passed in the Bundestag before the summer break. What do you think of the agreement on the women’s quota, Ms. Ankersen?
WIEBKE ANKERSEN: In Germany, people have stuck to this quota discussion for far too long. This is one of the reasons why we are so far behind internationally. Look at the Scandinavian countries, or the US or the UK. In all of these countries the proportion of women in top positions is much higher – and they have no quota.
Does that mean that the quota for women that has been decided is not satisfactory?
Another debate took place in the countries I have named. There is a belief in companies that it is better for them to create equal opportunities if they have diverse leadership. In addition, you have completely different social expectations in these countries. You haven’t been able to present a purely male team for a long time.
Can you still do that in Germany?
It is still relatively new here that comments are made when a company is only run by men. We experienced the first real shit storm when Horst Seehofer presented his management team for the Ministry of the Interior in 2018. It was just so clear that it couldn’t be that there weren’t any qualified women for the team. Since then, public awareness in Germany has continued to develop.
What do you mean?
It is no longer uncommented in Germany when a management team starts up that consists only of men. And that has a big effect on companies, because they don’t want to be perceived by the public as backward looking. Nobody wants to be associated with a 50s image today. And the younger generation now naturally expects companies to ensure diversity and equal opportunities.
Now the women’s quota is forcing them to do so.
Yes and no. We have a very diverse society in Germany. More than 50 percent are women, and almost 25 percent of people have roots abroad. These groups are not represented in the company’s top management. Incidentally, this also applies to East Germans. The selection is not meritocratic. The companies claim that they only make decisions based on qualifications and that gender does not matter. But that cannot actually be the case. Since 2012 there have been more female business administration graduates than men. They also start in the company, but don’t make it to the top. If the most qualified and talented were really promoted and brought into the most important decision-making positions, the board members would automatically look completely different: namely, much more diverse. No, something else is happening.
We called it the Thomas cycle. Thomas is the most common name on German executive boards and Thomas tends to recruit others of his type around himself – because they are similar to him and he is most likely to trust them to do the same thing as himself. As the hierarchical level rises, there are fewer and fewer objective selection mechanisms, at the top there is no longer an assessment center. And that of course favors that the influence of gut instinct becomes stronger. And that will continue if you just let the managers go on and not purposefully interrupt this cycle. Because it is very pleasant for managers to gather around one another.
In other words, what has to happen instead of a women’s quota?
Companies need a new awareness; they actually have to define and anchor diversity as an important corporate goal. So someone at the top of the company has to ensure that this goal is specifically named and pursued. And as an equal goal and not subordinate to other goals – otherwise it always comes under the wheels. And beyond setting specific goals, we simply have to ensure that the career paths of men and women converge.
What does that mean in concrete terms?
So far, careers have diverged when children come into play. In practice, we should try to lure women back from parental leave earlier and to send men much more into parental leave, or part-time. Otherwise it will always be the women who are out of their job for a year or more and the men continue to gain important experience and expand their network. If you don’t do that, in the end there won’t be enough women in a company who are ready to take on a leadership role.
So the beginning has to be made below?
Yes, we have to make sure that men have choices too. When children are involved, women are always asked how much parental leave they want to take, how much part-time they want to work. It doesn’t happen to men. But there are also companies that manage to balance the careers of women and men.
Ikea, for example. There they have 50 percent at every hierarchical level – also in Germany. And that works in other companies too, if you want to. At Ikea, they also sit down with the men who become fathers. The question then is not whether they will take parental leave, but for how long. And they don’t grudgingly accept the fact that you’re out for two months, they expect a man to take half the time. Especially if you want to become a manager.
So Swedish companies could be a role model?
Yes. But not only the companies, but also the state-designed framework. For us, spouse splitting cemented the status quo. In Sweden it was abolished 50 years ago on the grounds that it was no longer up to date. There they wanted to achieve that women help shape society just like men. And to be fair, the daycare centers were expanded so that all men and women could work. Sweden has created the conditions for women to participate equally in the labor market, because the country wanted it that way.
So would spouse splitting alone be the solution?
No of course not. It’s also a question of culture. In Sweden there are no more fixed meetings after 4 p.m. because people who look after children then have to leave. And after all, they shouldn’t have a disadvantage. Then there is also the practice of “leaving loud”. This means that the boss leaves clearly visible by 6 p.m. at the latest and thus signals that it is okay to call it a day. This is how a culture prevails that also allows a private life. This makes it easier for everyone to access.
Why don’t we have that?
That has to develop. Studies show that Sweden’s economy is growing faster than the German one – in other words, the Swedish economy did not perish because of the many women in management or because of the healthier work-life balance of the working population, on the contrary.
How can you motivate companies to strive for this change?
The companies should actually motivate themselves to do so. Studies show that diversified companies make better decisions. Whoever only gathers his own kind around him also gathers only one perspective. And then there is often a lack of corrective elements that bring something new or that question something. But it would also be worthwhile for another reason: Sweden is always well ahead of Germany in the World Happiness Report.
After the women’s quota – does the state have to use other instruments?
The growing public pressure will change a lot. One example is Zalando. For a long time, the target figure for women on the executive board was zero in the annual report. When this became known, customers refused to let go and started deleting their accounts. The employees could not identify with it either, so that in the end a woman was brought to the board. And the state itself should of course be a role model with female occupations in the public service – and the abolition of the splitting of spouses or more “father months” for parental allowance are other instruments that could accelerate development.
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