Deutsche Telekom's Quota Man German Companies 'Know They Have Too Few Women'

Deutsche Telekom's chief human resources officer had long wanted to increase the percentage of female employees. He says the company's decision to introduce a 30-percent quota for women in management isn't just about Telekom's reputation, but about ensuring that it gets and promotes the best-qualified people.

The Deutsche Telekom all-male board with Thomas Sattelberger (c) and CEO Rene Obermann (r).

The Deutsche Telekom all-male board with Thomas Sattelberger (c) and CEO Rene Obermann (r).


In his capacity as chief human resources officer, Thomas Sattelberger is also a behavioral researcher of sorts. After having worked at Lufthansa and Continental Tire, he is now a member of the management board of Deutsche Telekom. The 60-year-old executive knows that corporations often function like packs. He is familiar with the pecking order and has experienced numerous turf wars. Most of all, he knows that anyone who hopes to change anything in the pack must first win over the alpha male.

Sattelberger's plan worked. "I'll support it!" Deutsche Telekom CEO René Obermann said when his human resources officer put forward a bold proposal at a board meeting in Bonn two weeks ago: He wanted Deutsche Telekom to make a commitment to filling 30 percent of management positions with women by the end of 2015. The measure would affect roughly 10,000 jobs.

Sattelberger thinks it's time to put an end to half-hearted attempts to treat women equally. "I was already dealing with the issue at Continental," says the executive. "At the time, I didn't feel confident enough to call it a quota."

But now the time was ripe, and not just because demographic changes could make employing more women in key positions an economic necessity. As the battle over highly qualified new talent becomes more heated, employers can no longer afford to ignore the growing share of female university graduates.

An Unwritten Male Quota

Besides, says Sattelberger, the economic crisis has deprived many an assertive executive of his mystique. "In recent years, many managers haven't cut a very good figure." Nevertheless, he adds, he was "surprised at the openness with which my colleagues on the executive board addressed the subject of a female quota."

After prolonged discussion, the board members concluded that Deutsche Telekom already has a quota, but an unwritten one: men fill about 85 percent of senior positions. They realized that there is a glaring discrepancy between aspirations and reality.

Once Obermann had given his seal of approval to the idea, the discussion turned to questions like: Do we have enough courage? How will we manage the details? Some even said: Why not 50 percent? After an hour of debate, the board reached its decision: Deutsche Telekom will be the first company listed on Germany's DAX stock index to introduce a 30 percent quota for women in executive positions.

Obermann also notified the government in Berlin, where Family Minister Kristina Schröder, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is fine-tuning her own equality initiatives. The government is still a major shareholder in Deutsche Telekom. The coup was not entirely unexpected, because Sattelberger had already raised the issue of quotas internally half a year earlier.

But when Sattelberger invited several hundred female Deutsche Telekom managers to a conference in Bonn, the results were not what he had expected. The women from Eastern Europe, where they already make up 40 percent of management, didn't see the need for a quota. For women from northern Europe and France, the need for a quota was self-evident. Only the women from central Europe were undecided.

In Germany, in particular, female managers fear being branded as quota women. At the same time, they are often furious over being passed over for promotions, despite their outstanding performance.

'Proven Patterns Repeated'

Sattelberger concluded that a quota was absolutely necessary, and it was a group composed solely of men that eventually reached the decision. The management boards of Deutsche Telekom subsidiaries T-Mobile and T-Home are also exclusively male, even though Obermann had a unique opportunity to refill all management positions within the Deutsche Telekom Group within a few years.

Ironically, a woman was in the running for Sattelberger's job in 2006. He eventually secured the job, and now he is making sure that there are also management opportunities for women. He doesn't believe, however, that men tend to hire men because they don't mean well. Instead, he says, they tend to do it unconsciously, and "proven patterns are repeated."

But the issue isn't quite that harmless in the light of the fierce competition for management positions. Men, who had previously divided up the most powerful positions among themselves, without challenge, suddenly face growing female competition. On average, women outperform men academically, both in school and at the university. Will they also be better at their jobs?

The prejudicial stereotype of the women being less productive than men "contradicts all scientific conclusions," says Sattelberger. By introducing a female quota, he adds, Deutsche Telekom can guarantee itself a consistent selection of the most qualified employees. "The argument is often incorrectly advanced that qualified women can't be found," says Sattelberger.

It would become immediately clear that this argument is incorrect if companies were to make promotion processes transparent. "An application process can no longer be a conclave, in which no reason is given for the decision. Once all criteria on why someone is objectively more qualified for a job than someone else are laid on the table, it will be difficult to keep women away," says Sattelberger.

Avoiding Discrimination Against Men

He believes that many German companies are guilty of "self-deception." "They know that they have too few women. They convince themselves that they're doing a great deal. And if their efforts are unsuccessful, they set up mentoring and coaching programs. Then they pitifully complain that they have done everything they can. In reality, however, nothing has changed." He calls this "a subtle deception, coupled with a modern trade in indulgences."

Most major corporations don't care. Allianz and Adidas, Bayer, Deutsche Bahn and BASF, all are opposed to a set quota, so as to avoid discrimination against men, as officials at consumer goods manufacturer Beiersdorf put it. Hans Heinrich Driftmann, the president of the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce, weighed in on the debate last week, saying that his organization favored keeping the promotion of women voluntary. "Legal regulations don't help," he says, but in saying this he ignores a prominent example.

In 2008, Norway enacted a law requiring 40 percent of positions on company supervisory boards to be filled by women. France's governing party, the UMP, submitted a draft bill in January that would require the same quota to apply to all publicly traded companies by 2016. In late 2009, the Dutch parliament even imposed a quota for company supervisory and management boards: By 2016, companies with more than 250 employees will be required to fill 30 percent of positions on both boards with women. According to a constitutional amendment that was just waved through the upper house of the Indian parliament, a female quota of 33 percent of seats in parliament will apply in future elections.

In Germany, women are paid about 20 percent less than men for performing the same job, and women are a rare sight on the executive floors of large companies.

These practices are outdated, says Sattelberger, Deutsche Telekom's human resources chief. "Every seasoned male manager ought to ask himself whether equal female participation in the business isn't part of the company's good reputation."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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