The number of women in leadership positions at German companies is shockingly low, a problem that the country's top companies pledged to address at a meeting in Berlin on Monday. The group of 30 firms that make up Germany's blue-chip DAX stock index presented a plan to voluntarily increase the proportion of women in leadership roles -- reaching up to 35 percent by 2020.
Family Minister Kristina Schröder, a conservative with Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party who for months has been working toward a voluntary agreement, seemed pleased after the meeting. "What we have experienced in the last few months is more than everything that has happened in the last 10 years," she said.
But Schröder's fellow Christian Democrat and federal Labor Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, disagreed. A champion of a binding legal quota, she said the voluntary targets not only fail to bridge the yawning gender gap, but also fail to include any pledges for executive and supervisory boards.
"Only 3.7 percent of the membership of the boards of our listed companies are comprised of women," she told the press conference. "That is no calling card" for a country as important as Germany is in the global labor market, she said. "We absolutely need to improve."
The two politicians have been at odds for months over the issue, a conflict played up by the German media as a catfight of sorts. The labor minister insists that legislation should dictate an increase to 30 percent women in upper management by 2018, while Schröder has threatened the leading companies with what she calls a "flexi-quota" that would go into effect in 2013 if the number of top female managers doesn't triple by then. Still, on Tuesday von der Leyen told broadcaster Deutschlandfunk that the proposal was a "step forward," though only in the sense that the discussion can now turn to asking, "Why don't you have more ambitious targets?"
Opposition politicians were also critical of Schröder's deal. "In Germany we urgently need legal quota regulations, otherwise equal participation by women in top positions will be put off indefinitely," center-left Social Democrat Andrea Nahles told the Rheinische Post newspaper, accusing the family minister of caving in to pressure from the business world.
But Germany's top firms are unlikely to submit to rigid quotas, as Monday's vague proposals, which vary in ambition, suggested. Instead, the companies refer to promoting "women in leadership positions."
Despite the proposals, they may be unable to avoid a gender quota. A working draft for a legal gender quota is already said to be making the rounds in the Family Ministry, where officials hope to see its adoption by July 2012. A move to make a quota legally binding could also assuage the concerns of the European Commission.
Vice President Vivian Reding, a well-known advocate of legal gender quotas on executive boards, recently announced she would be closely reviewing the progress of member countries, threatening to introduce a binding directive from Brussels if they fail to voluntarily institute her targets by March 2012. Justice Commissioner Reding is calling for executive boards for companies listed on stock exchanges to include 40 percent women by 2020. According to her website, only eight such companies across the European Union have set this target. Not a single one of them is a German company.
On Tuesday, German commentators also cast a critical eye on the DAX-30's proposal, with some calling it a blow to gender equality, and others lauding it as the way forward:
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:
"Women still have significantly worse chances of career advancement and are paid unacceptably lower amounts, while the men on the supervisory boards of large companies shrug their shoulders with supposed innocence when they are asked about the absence of female colleagues. ... If women depend on men for their liberation, they will be abandoned. That's the truth. On Monday, the heads of the German DAX companies unapologetically confirmed this once again."
"They are resisting a legal quota, instead promising a voluntary commitment that will cost them nothing if they don't follow through. This centers not on the percentage of women on executive and supervisory boards, but on subordinate levels of leadership. As for the executive and supervisory boards, the companies have signaled a generous willingness to discuss the possibilities in the future. And with that the increase in the number of women at the top of German DAX companies is irrevocably terminated: It's never going to happen."
The left-wing daily Die Tageszeitung writes:
"The world was waiting for the companies to present their plans for their self-selected top management 'flexi-quota.' Instead, they offered a cuddly quota for middle management, where many women already remain stuck, unable to advance to top positions … The bosses strictly refused to take part in the sensitive debate over the highest leadership committees. In other words, little to nothing will happen at that level."
"At the end of the drama we are back to square one. Once again it has been shown that the business world's blockade of every kind of legal quota is pretty massive. ... A little concession here, a little bit of threatening the chancellor there, and the girls won't be too sad about their law."
"That's how the companies have most likely hindered von der Leyen's 30-percent quota. ... And yet, humiliatingly, one will have to be happy with that."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"Women have achieved a lot in the last few decades. They've left men behind in the education system. And they have also conquered almost every former male bastion in the professional world. Still, it's true that there are too few women leading companies. But a number of businesses have recognized this and shifted course. After all, half of the customer base is female. And in light of the skilled labor shortage, any company that discriminates against half the talent is squandering a chance for its long-term future. Thus the success of women is programed in advance. If politicians think they can accelerate this development with legal regulations, they are fooling themselves. Companies will find ways around overblown quotas. The hard-working career women can take this chance to show that world that they don't rely on coddling measures from the state. It's more satisfying to owe one's success to performance alone, and not one's sex."
In a commentary for financial daily Handelsblatt, Werner Zedelius, a boardmember for human resources at German insurer Allianz, writes:
"We must make a change if we want to maintain our position as one of the leading business locations in the world. The first joint voluntary commitment by the DAX-30 companies is a breakthrough."
"Rigid quotas would be wrong. What we need is a program of action and company-specific targets that make any legal quotas unnecessary. ... That can happen only with concrete measures: part-time positions that are also available for management positions, concrete offerings to create a better balance between work and private life, and mentoring programs through which top managers foster the advancement of the most talented women. Furthermore, we will install more female members on our executive boards and within company management."