Still, what does it mean for men when companies' leadership positions are increasingly filled by women? Should they be worried that their own career prospects will diminish?
Monika Schulz-Strelow finds such concerns absurd. "Have men seen their career advancement over the last 40 or 50 years as discrimination against women?" she asks. Her question is not meant as a provocation, but rather as an expression of frustration.
Schulz-Strelow is president of Women on Supervisory Boards (FidAR), a Berlin-based association founded in 2006 by women holding executive positions in commerce, academia and politics. It aims to increase the proportion of women on the supervisory boards of German companies in both a significant and lasting way.
"Right now, there are many CEOs who are mostly just making bold statements about promoting women," Schulz-Strelow says. "But just as many have taken a top-down approach and are living up to what they say. Change comes from above, and only when subjected to pressure."
Indeed, something has really changed in the corporate world, and not only on supervisory boards. The number of women who hold positions of responsibility in operative business matters is growing as well.
Andrea Fuder, for example, now oversees purchasing for the truck maker Scania as a member of the VW subsidiary's executive board. Simone Menne, meanwhile, took up the reins as Lufthansa's CFO last summer, overseeing a division traditionally staffed by men. And Helga Jung joined the executive board at the Munich-based insurance giant Allianz. In addition to managing the company's transactions in Spain, Portugal and Latin America, she also overseas its strategic investments and acquisitions as well as legal and compliance matters. The press release announcing her appointment in 2011 as the first woman on the company's executive board said: "For all intents and purposes it's a routine announcement, and yet it marks a milestone in Allianz's 121-year history."
About Women or Diversity?
As a whole, the numbers in Germany still reflect only a modest change, especially when compared with the situations in countries such as Norway, which passed a law in 2005 stipulating that women must hold 40 percent of the seats on all corporate boards. In Germany, by contrast, only 13 companies in the DAX-30 have women on their executive boards.
Still, the general trend is clear. According to a study conducted by Egon Zehnder International, in mid-2012, 12.8 percent of board members in Germany were women. Two years previously, the figure was just 8.7 percent, making for an increase of 47 percent, which is well above the EU average. Between mid-2011 and mid-2012, 41 percent of all new executive positions in Germany were filled by women, a rate 10 percentage points higher than the average among Europe's largest companies.
Along with it making good political sense, there are plenty of other rational reasons for companies to increasingly fill executive-level positions with women. With the country's population shrinking, there will simply be fewer qualified professionals available in the future. Over half of all university graduates from European universities are women, and it would be a waste of talent not to consider them when making important staffing decisions.
But Daniela Weber-Rey considers such arguments to be less important. Rather than focusing on the interests of women and their supposedly different perspective, she prioritizes a company's interests. "I don't have a purely female point of view, but rather a professional one," she says. "But there are enough qualified women, outside the network of the DAX company boards as well, who would truly enrich supervisory boards."
Weber-Rey is a Frankfurt-based lawyer and partner at Clifford Chance, a globally active law firm that specializes in company acquisitions. She also holds a seat on the administrative board of BNP Paribas, France's largest bank. And, like Ann-Kristin Achleitner, she is a member of the German Corporate Governance Commission.
Achleitner agrees with Weber-Ray that the issue isn't just about women. "Supervisory boards without men would be just as unbalanced," she explains. "This is about diversity. We need academics represented as well as practitioners, international faces, men and women, too -- the whole spectrum."