Professional Women in Germany: The Chutes and Ladders

women smilingHow easy is it for German woman to climb the corporate ladder in modern day Germany? Despite Germany’s reputation for cutting edge modernity, there still exists a big gap between men and women in Germany’s corporate world.

It may be surprising to learn that no other industrial nation has as few top female managers as Germany. Despite having a female Chancellor, there is a general sense that Germany today is stuck well in the past.

Only 11% of German companies have women within management positions. This is lower than the European Union average of 14% and way behind the United States and Canada who have around 40% parity. Many see Germany’s corporate culture and even German society as the biggest obstacle to German women gaining footing in the corporate world. Reinhild Engel, an equal opportunity official at the German company Schering says, “Women have to fight for lead positions. We have to change the company culture and the social culture.”

“Women have to fight for lead positions. We have to change the company culture and the social culture.”

Some say that Germany is simply stuck in the past. Gabriele Schaffran-Deutschmann, a recognized advocate for women also in Schering stated, “I think it’s true that Germany is 20 years behind.” Today’s Germany has a firmly entrenched masculine working culture. In Germany fewer women work full time than in France, Great Britain and all of the Scandinavian countries. Of those who do join the workforce, less than 4% reach positions of top management.

In politics German women are also lagging behind many of the other EU countries. Economist Ute Klammer, who led a study on German women and work which was presented to the federal government recently stated, “Most European countries have more women in leading positions.” There is a growing sense that Germany is behind its more gender progressive neighbours. Current German tax laws are also seen as responsible. Klammer also said, “If you look at West Germany in particular, there is a strong breadwinner model. There is still the idea that the man supports the family and the female works part-time, if at all.”

These systemic problems have had massive effects on the corporate world. Men still outnumber women in Germany’s boardrooms 8 to 1 despite a federal cabinet which is comprised of 40% women. According to the DIW economic think-tank, women occupy just 7 percent of executive board seats among the 30 largest companies on Germany’s blue-chip DAX index.

This problem is compounded by the lack of German women returning to work after having children. This is caused in part by the current parental leave law which states that an employer can return to the same or, an equivalent job up to 3 years after childbirth. However despite the law encouraging 98% of women back into the workforce, employers are often leery of both hiring women in the first place and of promoting them when they come back.

Hans-Olaf Henkel, the former president of the Association of German Industry says, “A very limited number of women advance after they have children. Women are more or less forced to quit in Germany.”

“A very limited number of women advance after they have children. Women are more or less forced to quit in Germany.”

These deeply entrenched gender roles are sometimes attributed to Germany’s turbulent history. A German female banking executive who refused to be identified recently stated, “After the war, so many men were lost, it was essential for women to raise their children as a duty to the Fatherland. If you left your children to others, you were a rabenmutter, a bad mother, like the raven bird pushing her little ones out of the nest.” Barbara Schaeffer-Hegel, founder of the European Academy for Women in Politics and Business stated, “The mother ideology of the Third Reich and the conservative women’s’ politics in the postwar time have left deep marks. The division of the areas of public and private were cemented with the exclusive responsibility of women for the private areas– caring for children and ensuring the welfare of the family.”

These cultural inclinations toward raising one’s own children singlehandedly have left their mark on Germany’s daycare systems. These factors make companies even more wary of promoting women. “It’s a lot harder to reconcile having a family and a career in Germany than it is in most developing countries and almost all industrial nations,” says Schaeffer-Hegel.

The present reality and the future progress

But there are signs that things are getting better for Germany’s corporate women. According to Fidar, a German initiative which promotes female managers, women held 11.1% of positions in executive and supervisory boards in 2013. This is a huge 4.6% jump from 2011. But while this is impressive, Fidar was quick to express that much more work needs to be done. Fidar president Monika Schulz-Strelow said, “It is not enough to bring one woman into the supervisory board. In order for things to change, several women must be in leadership positions of a company.” Fidar states that for actual change to occur and remain so, at least 20-25% of German management positions must be filled by women.

In 2014 the figure for women in supervisory positions rose to 16.2% causing great fanfare in the German media. However what was less promising is the mere 5.9% of women in executive boards. This figure rose just 3.4% from 2013. Schulz-Strelow went on to state, “Nearly a quarter of Dax companies are completely free of women in their leadership. The realization is spreading that having women in the executive and supervisory boards is very good for a company. Yet despite this, companies which simply bring one woman into a leadership position but do not change the culture will simply lose those women again.”

In order to avoid this, Chancellor Merkel and the German government have suggested installing female quotas for German corporate positions. These quotas are being taken very seriously by the media and during policy debates. Merkel has promised that from 2016 on, women must hold at least 30 percent of corporate board positions in some of Germany’s biggest listed companies. And while the debate for and against these quotas is still in heated progress, there is at least consolation in the fact that the argument exists at all.

By Ben Rozon