Gender Quota Debate: 'We Have to Rethink Our Entire Social Model'

In a SPIEGEL interview, European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, 60, and German Family Minister Kristina Schröder, 34, discuss male dominance on executive floors and a potential gender quota. They disagree on whether a legally-binding quota is necessary, but both want to see more women in upper management.

SPIEGEL: Madame Commissioner Reding, why does Europe need a gender quota?

Reding: For three reasons. First, there are now several studies showing that companies run by women operate more successfully. And these studies aren't coming from feminist lobbying groups, but from Deutsche Bank, McKinsey and Ernst & Young. The second argument is that 60 percent of university graduates are now female. It's a matter of fairness that these women finally capture the top jobs in companies. And the third argument is that the age groups with high birth rates are slowly moving into retirement. We can't afford to do without young women in the working world.

SPIEGEL: Minister Schröder, why doesn't Germany need a quota?

Schröder: I find it strange to think in terms of gender collectives. On the surface, a quota may simulate fairness, but it tends to exacerbate unfairness for individuals rather than eliminate it. I think it's absurd to impose a uniform quota on very different companies, from the steel industry to the media. The reason for the limited presence of women in top jobs is that senior executives are expected to work 70 or 80 hours a week. This keeps almost anyone with family commitments away from such positions. And as far as female university graduates are concerned, no one goes directly from the university to the executive floor.

Reding: That sounds as if we wanted to force women to take top positions. The problem is that we know all too well that many women want to climb the corporate ladder but are stopped by the glass ceiling. I've talked to many large, publicly traded companies all over Europe. They've all told me: "We're addressing the problem." But almost nothing has been done. The share of women in supervisory boards and executive boards increased from 12 to 14 percent in the last year. Sorry, that's just too slow for me.

SPIEGEL: What do you want your quota to look like, Ms. Reding?

Reding: I want to see women constitute 40 percent of the supervisory boards of publicly traded companies by 2020.

Schröder: Let's imagine a specialty tool manufacturer in (the southwestern German region of) Swabia, with a board consisting of three members. What's this company supposed to do if a quota is introduced? If there isn't a suitable woman within the company, it'll be forced to find one elsewhere -- instead of being allowed to promote a department head who has been working for the company for 40 years.

Reding: That's a bogus argument. I know the female chief executive of ArcelorMittal in South Africa. She's a woman who has made it to the very top in the steel industry. Besides, my quota applies to supervisory boards, which are charged with monitoring corporate policy, which is something you don't have to be an engineer to do.

Schröder: I'm surprised by this focus on the supervisory board, because it's really just symbolism. We have to promote new ways of thinking in the executive boards, because corporate culture is not shaped in the supervisory board.

Reding: That's great! So now I expect you to put two things on the table -- a quota for executive boards and one for supervisory boards. That would be progress.

Schröder: But the real point is not to force women into male-dominated structures. Instead, we have to change the structures themselves within companies. Many women want both -- to spend time with their families and have a career.

Reding: Don't men want the same thing?

Schröder: Precisely! Because I generally want people with family obligations to do well professionally, we have to take a look at the entire company. I want to force companies to address the issue of how to consistently increase the percentage of women in the workforce. If they don't achieve self-defined goals, there should be sanctions. That's the core of my flexible quota.

Reding: But the German example, in particular, shows that self-commitment is ineffective. Of course we have to help women and men reconcile their careers and their families. That's why we need more childcare capacity, an area in which Germany lags far behind other countries. I also believe that a childcare premium that encourages parents to care for their children at home would be sending the wrong message.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Reding, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso is a man, and so are European Council President Herman van Rompuy and European Parliament President Martin Schulz. Shouldn't you put your own house in order first, before imposing a gender quota on other countries?

Reding: You hold the European Commission responsible for the fact that the 27 heads of government of the member states choose men for the top jobs. I'm certainly not taking responsibility for that. In fact, we do keep our house in order, and very efficiently at that. Nine of the 27 Commission members are now women, making for the most balanced gender distribution that's ever been achieved. And highly qualified women occupy 50 percent of the leadership positions within my scope of responsibility. Moreover, Germany is part of the European domestic market, for which the European Commission is responsible. Since the 1957 Treaty of Rome, Europe has had express jurisdiction over the equal rights of men and women. There are also some very practical reasons to consider. We can't afford a patchwork of quotas. At the moment, 10 EU countries have quota regulations, while the others do not. If a German company wants to bid for a contract in Spain, it only stands a chance of succeeding if it satisfies the Spanish gender quota. We need a clear EU legal framework, and we need it quickly, so that competition is not distorted within the domestic market.

Schröder: The German government believes that Brussels cannot stipulate a quota without our consent. We agree on the goal of promoting women. But each country has to find its own way to bring more women into leadership positions.

Reding: The people are much more sensible than politicians like us. We did a poll among citizens in Europe, and the results surprised me. Some 75 percent of people believe that we have to introduce a quota, unless an alternative can be found.

Schröder: I took a careful look at that survey. Interestingly enough, the questions don't address a fixed quota at all. Instead, they mention legal measures under the condition that ability is taken into account and that neither gender is to be given preference automatically. Thus, the survey doesn't prove at all that the majority of Europeans favor a rigid quota. On the contrary, the largest group wants companies to set their own goals.

Reding: Is that your idea of politics? Put your hands in your lap and wait until the companies do something? Isn't that what German politics has been doing for 30 years? You know, when I was your age I used to believe that we women would make it without a quota. Now I know better.

Schröder: Nevertheless, you made it without a quota. The quota is an outdated instrument, one that's based on a collectivist way of thinking. It will ensure that a few women are put on display. As a rule, they'll be the women who have no family obligations. And nothing will change at the levels below them. We see this effect in Norway, unfortunately. The quota is filled in the supervisory boards. No surprise there -- after all, it's the law. But unfortunately things remain largely unchanged at levels below that.

Reding: There are many mothers who have had a career. It's incredibly unfair to say that only women without families make it to the top. That's the first thing. And as far as Norway is concerned, people there say: "We have these women in golden skirts who move from one supervisory board to the next." I've had that checked. It's mostly men who are members of multiple supervisory boards, but no one says anything about men in golden trousers.

Schröder: To be honest, your image of women is too passive for my taste. It isn't as if we women were merely victims of circumstance and had no minds of our own. We don't want pity, and we don't want special treatment. We just want equal opportunities.

SPIEGEL: When you both look back on your own careers, do you see yourself as quota women?

Schröder: I once benefited from a quota, namely when my party sponsored me as a candidate for the Bundestag in 2002. People still smugly hold this against me today, as if my abilities hadn't counted at all at the time. Many have had the same experience.

Reding: In my career, I always benefited from the fact that there were so few women in politics.

SPIEGEL: There is a gender quota in the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Is there one in your party in Luxembourg, too, Ms. Reding?

Reding: Yes, we also introduced the quota in our Christian Social People's Party. Nowadays it's taken for granted that women are nominated, so that we don't need this instrument anymore. And based on my experience, I can say that we now need the quota in the business world to achieve a breakthrough.

Schröder: There just happens to be a big difference between parties and companies setting their own quotas, thereby changing their internal dynamics, or the government mandating quotas. Some companies are already taking the initiative and creating their own quotas. Deutsche Telekom did it, and the companies on the DAX 30 have established targets for all managerial levels.

Reding: But not for the supervisory boards!

Schröder: But it's much more ambitious to set yourself a quota for all managerial levels than just for the supervisory boards. You might need three or four women for the supervisory boards. But if you have 400 managerial positions in a company and you set yourself a quota of 25 percent, you have to recruit 100 women for these managerial positions. That's a much more ambitious undertaking. The trend has become unstoppable. More and more companies will have to justify why they're not doing this. Transparency can be very painful in our media society.

Reding: I wish you great success with your flexible quota, but it's not enough. More than 15,000 women from all parties, including me, have already signed the "Berlin Declaration" for a fixed gender quota on supervisory boards. Thousands of journalists, women and men alike, have launched their own initiative, called "Pro Quota."

Schröder: The female journalists don't want a government dictate at all. They want the publishing houses and editorial offices to set their own quotas. This is a great example of how the movement toward self-commitment is gathering speed from the bottom up.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Schröder, we've heard that Chancellor Angela Merkel is also thinking about supporting a fixed gender quota now. What exactly will you do if the mood shifts within the CDU? Resign?

Schröder: If I were only interested in boosting my image in some cold, calculating way, I could easily jump on the bandwagon. For a minister of women and family affairs, there could be nothing easier for me than to support the quota. But my convictions are against it.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Reding, your ally in Germany is Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen, Ms. Schröder's predecessor. Weren't you showing a lack of solidarity last June -- just as the minister in question was on maternity leave -- when you and Ms. von der Leyen spoke out in favor of the quota at an event?

Reding: As a mother, I would never try to back another mother into a corner because she has just given life to a child. That's why Ms. Schröder and I had already discussed the issue at length several months earlier. But Ursula and I have been friends for a long time. And we get together regularly.

SPIEGEL: Then you're familiar with Ms. von der Leyen's agenda. She wants to push the quota through and is using everything in her power to score points against Ms. Schröder.

Reding: That's not the way I perceived it. I was interested in the issue itself. It pleases me to see more and more women from the CDU saying: "Viviane, it's good to know that we're now sitting in the same boat."

Schröder: I'd like to come to Ms. Reding's defense in this regard. She received an invitation from Germany. How exactly is she supposed to know when my due date is?

SPIEGEL: Ms. von der Leyen knew.

Reding: I don't think we should bring it to this level. I believe that you -- two men -- are trying to disparage discussions among women as a catfight once again.

SPIEGEL: You use the word "catfight," but we would call it a power struggle. When it comes to power, do women treat each more brutally than men?

Reding: There are no differences. I see many brutal disputes among men, between men and women, and among women.

Schröder: We agree on that. Performance and competency should count, not a person's gender.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Schröder, the coalition government of the CDU and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) is expected to introduce a childcare allowance for women who raise their children at home. A quota probably won't happen in this legislative period. Is this an outcome that will appeal to female voters?

Schröder: The key question will be whether we have the courage to change working conditions -- and, in many cases, the labor laws -- in such a way that people with families can also have careers. Elterngeld (leave benefits for the parents of infants) makes a very important contribution in this regard. And so does my agreement with companies in the German economy to offer more part-time managerial positions.

Reding: We have to rethink our entire social model. When managers in Nordic countries schedule a meeting after 4 p.m., neither women nor men are still in the office. They're at home with their children. Later, when the children are in bed, they often do a little work. When will we stop judging work in Germany by the number of hours put in and not by performance?

SPIEGEL: Ms. Reding, the Berlin Declaration, which you signed, states that in a first step 30 percent of supervisory board members are to be women. What will you say to all the men who will have to do without their careers in the coming years as a result?

Reding: I think it's sweet to hear you talk about the poor men who are now effectively protected by an 86-percent quota.

Schröder: I think it's problematic to hold the young generation responsible for things that generations of men did wrong in the past. It's about opportunities, not settling scores.

Reding: Women should be given the same opportunities on supervisory boards as men. And I hope that I'll live to see the day when we have a society in which it isn't important whether you're a man or a woman. How do we get there? That's where Ms. Schröder and I happen to disagree. As a European commissioner I, at any rate, will do everything I can to introduce a quota for supervisory boards. And I'm counting on strong support from Germany in this regard -- with or without Ms. Schröder.

Schröder: Even without instruction from Brussels, we'll find a good solution, so that people can have a family life and still pursue a career, regardless of their gender.

SPIEGEL: Commissioner Reding, Minister Schröder, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by René Pfister and Christoph Schult

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