Women hold 39 percent of management positions in Norway, but fewer than 10 percent in Germany. But, the German parliament has rejected quotas for top positions with the votes of the governing coalition.
In 1979, the United Nations codified its support for women’s rights with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. In it, signatory countries pledged to “condemn discrimination against women in all its forms [and] agree to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women.”
Thirty years later, however, the reality is sobering, at least when it comes to the position of women in senior management positions in large companies, which are occupied almost exclusively by men. And Germany has a particularly bad record: according to an OECD study, only 4 percent of board members in DAX-listed companies are women.
The German parliament voted Thursday (18.04.2013) on an opposition motion to bring in a legal quota, but it did not pass because the government parties voted against it.
In Scandinavia, the situation is completely different. There, the proportion of women in leadership positions in publicly traded companies is often well above 30 percent and has thus reached a critical mass. Such a development would also be good for the business climate in German companies, says Rolf Pohl, professor of sociology at the University of Hanover: “It wouldn’t guarantee that there would be a change in the existing male-oriented aura of absolute power because women aren’t better people, but those who already have such experience at least say there would be a different style of communication.”
Pohl admits that a quota is senseless, because it would not do justice to women and may even create new injustices. “But as long as we have no other instrument to solve the inequalities that still exist, it is unfortunately the only instrument that will work.”
Numerous studies show in fact that mixed-sex teams are more successful and work together more efficiently. Stephanie Bschorr, President of the Association of German Women Entrepreneurs (VdU), can confirm that: “I think a company can only benefit from any kind of diversity. The demand side is indeed multifaceted. What could be more natural than having many voices and opinions taken into account in the decisions of a company?”
An economic risk?
Critics claim a women’s quota “promotes mediocrity” and represents “an economic risk for the company.” Sociology professor Heather Hofmeister says this argument is an indication of open misogyny: one can’t just say that the female half of the population is less capable than the male, and Germany’s good economic shape cannot be explained by the fact that its companies are almost exclusively run by men. She likened this argument to a centuries-old folk belief: “If many babies were born in villages with many storks, people thought that storks bring babies. Germany has many men in leadership positions. Does that mean all German successes have something to do with the male managers? No, certainly not!”
Bschorr isn’t convinced by the argument that everything is going well in Germany, and so there’s no need for change: “We can’t hang around in the light of demographic change and the shortage of skilled workers. The world is also becoming smaller. These comparisons are made more and more often and I cannot imagine that the next generations of young women will be satisfied with this situation.”
One of the main difficulties in quotas for women is their negative implications. They are often interpreted as a punitive measure for companies. Hofmeister would like to see the term “proportional representation” used instead. This would make it clear that quotas are oriented on the realities in almost all other areas of society. “German women are good; they can really do a lot. But to live a lifetime in a society that says ‘You shouldn’t! You can’t!’ – that takes its toll,” she said.
But she also feels that there is a need for change in other fields: women should receive equal pay for equal work so they are no longer so dependent on their husbands. At the same time, it should be made easier for both men and women to be able to combine work and family.
The current debate about women in management positions affects a very small group, but they may serve as role models for all women in the country. But that’s not all, Pohl said: “By changing gender role models, perhaps we will start holding different discussions: for example, how can we make the profession of kindergarten teacher more attractive so that it is also suitable for boys and isn’t seen as female, underpaid and without prestige?”
The ultimate aim is to produce a new normality in all social contexts, from which all will benefit. According to Hofmeister, “Equality is a matter for both men and women. If men get access to their families and women get access to a secure professional future and both can be better role models for their children – that would mean a better future for society. And the quota is a tool for that.”