Women and Power Why Germany Needs a Gender Quota

The number of women in senior management positions is appallingly low at Germany's leading companies. Voluntary agreements have done little to improve the situation. It is time for lawmakers to take action.

Statistics show that female executives in Germany's top companies are a rarity.

Statistics show that female executives in Germany's top companies are a rarity.

By and

We had never thought of planning a career at SPIEGEL. If there was a plan, it was to be a journalist -- to travel, to meet people, to write, to become deeply involved in important topics. It's a wonderful existence, at least most of the time -- and if you should end up having children, your days are packed. They start before 6 a.m. and end just before midnight. All in all, it's a good life.

It's impossible, though, to be at work all the time during ordinary working hours. We simply wouldn't see our children enough. Working part-time is the solution. It's difficult to find such models, but somehow it works, provided we are willing to put in more hours when it becomes necessary. And it wouldn't work at all without the fathers. Plus, our parents live in a kind of permanent standby mode, so that they can take care of the grandchildren when it's absolutely necessary. It's often necessary.

On Monday mornings at 11 a.m., editors, department heads and executive editors meet for a conference to discuss the current issue. It's called the "magazine critique." It takes place in a large conference room with a view of the Hamburg harbor. The editors sit on upholstered benches by the windows, while the department heads and executive editors sit around a long table in the middle. SPIEGEL has two editors-in-chief, a deputy editor-in-chief and an executive editor -- all male. Then there are 30 department heads -- 28 of which are men. All told, there are 32 men and just two women seated at the table in the middle. More department heads are gay than are female.

Support Grows for a Gender Quota

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The fact that there are two women in such senior positions is a sign of progress. And people -- in the cafeteria, over coffee -- are constantly saying that they do their jobs well. They sound relieved that such a thing is possible.

Very Much Alone

For decades, SPIEGEL was almost entirely male. A young woman who began working at the company 12 or 14 years ago would have felt very much alone. Today woman make up 28 percent of the editorial staff.

There are moments during those Monday morning meetings when you're sitting on a padded bench by the window, looking at the gentlemen sitting around that table in the middle, and you think to yourself: nice suits. And well-tailored. At least most of them are. But why only men's suits? Why only men? You look from one to the next, but there is no one on whom to pin the blame. No one can really say why it is, and still it's unfair, aggravating and humiliating. 32 to 2. How is that possible? It shouldn't be. Article 3 of Germany's constitution, written 62 years ago, says it shouldn't be. It says that men and women are equal.

It isn't as though there have been no attempts to change the composition of the editorial staff. There are smart women at SPIEGEL, and there is a gender equality group made up of female editors, researchers and other publishing house employees who meet with the senior editorial staff and publishing-house management to talk about ways to increase the number of women in leadership positions. Women have been in senior positions from time to time, but those episodes often ended quickly. Being a woman at SPIEGEL is complicated, partly because there are so many men there.

The situation is similar in most companies in private enterprise. In recent weeks, much has been said about the possibility of a legally-mandated quota. A 40-percent quota for supervisory boards at the country's largest companies was introduced in France in mid-January, with firms required to meet the requirement by 2017. Other European countries and even the European Union have also passed or are considering such a move. Last October, Germany's conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) -- the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats -- introduced a quota for party leadership positions. In December, the Green Party, which has long had a quota within the party, introduced draft legislation in the German parliament for the introduction of a legal quota for businesses.

'A Broad Debate'

"We need to initiate a broad debate on the idea of female quotas and then we must draw consequences," German Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a member of Merkel's CDU, told SPIEGEL. "That's why the federal government will unveil a proposal this year."

Von der Leyen's thrust has not been universally well received. CSU head Horst Seehofer has said he is opposed to legally mandated quotas. So too has Guido Westerwelle, head of Merkel's junior coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democrats. Even Chancellor Merkel herself came out this week in favor of a voluntary agreement with German industry rather than a new law.

Still, von der Leyen insisted, a quota will likely come sooner or later. While conceding that quotas may not be a political possibility at the moment, she said that if gender equality doesn't improve in German boardrooms, "the German labor market will fall hopelessly behind in the international competition for the best female minds."

Last week the German government released its first report on equality, which von der Leyen commissioned in 2008. It too came to similar conclusions -- and handed von der Leyen a new issue to pursue.

It is an issue that has two perspectives: the male and the female. Equality, justice, role stereotypes, the dispute over quotas touches on everything -- for it would fundamentally change the country. The effects would be felt everywhere, from the breakfast table to the boardrooms of major corporations. And, of course, it would be felt in the Monday morning conference at SPIEGEL.

"Would you want to do it? Department head? Editor-in-chief?" The question came from a male department head at SPIEGEL, a very male question.

"Us? Why us?"

"Why not? Isn't that what this is about?"

What would have to change before a woman could become executive editor at SPIEGEL? And what does a woman have to do to change the male-to-female ratio from 32 to 2 to 31 to 3? And perhaps, one day, even 17 to 17?


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