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03/13/2012 01:12 PM

Taking On Big Business

Women Politicians Unite to Push for Gender Quota

By Ulrike Demmer, Peter Müller and Merlind Theile

A voluntary program to get German companies to introduce gender quotas for women in management has failed to bear fruit, but divisions within the German government are also hindering progress. Now, female politicians from across the political spectrum are pushing for change, and Angela Merkel may even make it a campaign issue.

Defeat? Ursula von der Leyen isn't interested in talk of defeat. That's something that simply doesn't happen in the life of Germany's labor minister, and certainly not on March 8, International Women's Day. The country's newspapers may well be reporting that the center-right government coalition has set aside the goal of establishing a legal quota for women in businesses, but von der Leyen won't let the gloomy headlines ruin her mood.

At work in her office, she quickly finishes signing a document promoting one of her women employees to the status of a civil servant with lifetime tenure. She doesn't fail to point out that the employee in question has children, providing another example of how both are possible, family and career.

Is the gender quota dead? No, von der Leyen says. The day's headlines are undoubtedly a setback, but "the issue isn't going away anymore," she adds.

Indeed, her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is not prepared to accept the quota veto by their junior coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), and frustrations are running high. FDP leader Philipp Rösler was not even willing to accept the "flexi-quota" proposed by Family Minister Kristina Schröder of the CDU, which was little more than a conciliatory gesture to set a voluntary commitment by companies into law. Chancellor Angela Merkel is annoyed, and if she can't implement the quota during this legislative period, she plans to make it a campaign topic -- even against the FDP, if necessary.

Cross-Party Motion Considered

For the time being, though, the women of the CDU's parliamentary group are still looking for solutions that could be implemented before the federal elections in 2013. The most radical course of action would a cross-party group motion in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament. It sounds technical, but basically means that quota supporters from each party would join together to create a law. This tactic would likely give rise to a majority, since the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), environmentalist Green Party and far-left Left Party have all long supported a quota, and support is growing within the CDU's ranks as well -- even among the men.

At the Bundestag's working group on legal affairs last week, Michael Grosse-Brömer, the CDU's expert on legal matters, tried to bury the quota issue. The vast majority of the CDU opposes such a measure, he declared, but fellow parliamentarian Marco Wanderwitz interjected to say that plenty of men believe in a quota. Wanderwitz has since signed the "Berlin Declaration," a document calling for a 30 percent quota of women on supervisory boards for DAX-listed companies. The first signatures on the declaration include leading members from nearly all parties represented in the Bundestag, including SPD General Secretary Andrea Nahles, Labor Minister von der Leyen from the CDU, Left Party leader Gesine Lötzsch and Renate Künast, chair of the Green Party's parliamentary group.

Initiators of the Berlin Declaration are planning to pay the chancellor a visit soon, and internally von der Leyen and other female members of the CDU's parliamentary group are considering using the document's momentum to organize a parliamentary majority in favor of the gender quota. "I could imagine a group motion as a last resort," says Rita Pawelski, chair of the CDU's women's group in the Bundestag. Dorothee Bär, deputy secretary general for the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU's Bavarian sister party, takes a similar line of argument: "Voluntary commitments haven't done any good, and I can't see a solution anymore without a legal component."

A Campaign Issue

But there's a catch to the idea of a group motion: It could easily bring about the collapse of the CDU-FDP coalition. As a rule, parliamentarians only cast their votes freely if their party leadership allows it, which happens only rarely. The Paragraph 218 amendment concerning abortion and a law concerning pre-implantation diagnostics are two past examples, but at the moment there is no indication that FDP parliamentary group leader Rainer Brüderle or his counterpart in the CDU, Volker Kauder, will define the quota issue as a matter of conscience.

Thus, Merkel's camp is considering another scenario, in which women in the CDU, CSU and FDP parliamentary groups would join forces to increase pressure on their respective party leadership in hopes that FDP Chair Rösler would eventually give in. This is little more than a pipe dream, though, because the number of gender quota supporters within the FDP's parliamentary group could be counted on one hand. The party still doesn't understand the quota issue, laments Doris Buchholz, national chair of the FDP's women's organization.

For this reason, Merkel is looking ahead to the federal elections in 2013. The chancellor has already indicated that the quota should be part of the CDU's election platform. "The quota needs to be anchored in the electoral platform at the latest," says Maria Böhmer, chair of the CDU's women's organization.

Still, the chancellor did oppose her labor minister this January, when von der Leyen called for strict regulations concerning the number of women in executive positions. But at the time Merkel did so in the interest of coalition harmony with the FDP. Since then, Merkel too has become convinced that nothing will change without applying pressure, Chancellery sources say.

That's a message von der Leyen is glad to hear. She herself is "indispensible" in the fight over the gender quota, the labor minister states in her office without a trace of false modesty. But it won't be possible without allies, she says.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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