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.
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?
The Appalling Dearth of Women in Management
Marion Knaths runs a coaching agency in Hamburg. She is 42, wears her hair short, speaks clearly and gets right to the point. Those hoping to carve out a career in a company must first become the top player in a group, department or team, she says. She demonstrates how this works. Speaking in a deep and clear voice, she sits up straight, chin up and looks comfortable in her chair. Her seated posture suggests that she is a self-confident woman. And instead of raising her voice at the end of a question, she drops it. "Bring it down," says Knaths.
"By the way," she says, scrutinizing her two female visitors, who are wearing a dress and a skirt, respectively, "pant suits are better." Why, exactly? "Less exposed skin means you're less of a target."
A debate ensues. We don't quite agree with what Knaths is saying. We're supposed to change? But it should be about authenticity. Otherwise it would be artificial, and that (at this point we're starting to get irritated) is the real imposition on women: First women are hardly allowed into the working world, and then they can only participate if they behave like men?
"No," says Knaths, "you don't have to become a man. But you do have to accept the rules that apply in your company. You have to play that game, or else you'll fail."
But a mother who is only working part-time is already in violation of the rules. Even if she ends up working just as much as her full-time coworkers, the reality is that she's often not there. Can someone like that even become a department head?
"Sure," says Knaths, "but only if her editors-in-chief support it. As long as there are only a few women, it's all the more difficult for each individual woman. People pay a little more attention to their every sentence, and they notice every mistake. This is incredibly wearisome."
Two weeks ago, the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) published figures on the proportion of women on the executive boards and supervisory boards of German companies. The changes in recent years are "homeopathic," says Elke Holst of the DIW. Women currently hold only 3.2 percent of executive board positions in the 200 largest companies. When the circle is narrowed to the 30 companies listed on the German DAX stock index and the 100 largest companies, the proportion of women falls to 2.2 percent. Put differently, of the 490 executive board members in these companies, 11 are women. By comparison, women are relatively well represented around the conference table at SPIEGEL. The situation is somewhat more equitable on the supervisory boards of major corporations, where women hold one in 10 positions.
Ten years ago, German industry representatives, anxious to avert a gender equality law being planned by then Family Minister Christine Bergmann, decided to enter into a "voluntary agreement" with the government. The stated goal was to achieve "lasting" improvement in opportunities for women. Hardly anything has happened in those 10 years. So much for voluntary arrangements.
We can't afford 10 more years of the status quo. According to McKinsey, the management consulting firm, Germany will face a shortfall of about two million skilled personnel by 2020. With birth rates today only half as high as in the mid-1960s, Germany must not only import workers from abroad, but will also have to pay more attention to those who have been neglected so far: women.
Not too long ago, quotas were seen as the devil's work and a product of feminism. Men saw their power and careers threatened, and women felt that quotas were a stigma that would lessen their individual achievements. Meanwhile, however, Germany lags far behind other countries when it comes to gender equality.
"It's time we really got things moving," says von der Leyen. Only when one in three managers is a woman will the male-dominated corporate culture change, and women will be able to demonstrate their strengths and bring in other women, she adds. Many studies support this.
But how? Norway is a model country in this respect. As far back as 2003, Norway enacted a law mandating that women make up 40 percent of supervisory boards in all publicly traded companies by 2008. And, lo and behold, the country still exists. The total number of women on supervisory boards in Norway has risen from 200 to about 1,000 in the last eight years. Even in companies that are not subject to the quota, the proportion of women on company boards has risen to about 30 percent.
For several years, the Norwegian business owners association offered courses to prepare women for their future responsibilities on supervisory boards. The promotion of women in Norway is referred to as "pearl diving." Today the country has more foreign, publicly traded companies than before the quota was introduced. Nevertheless, many men were not enthusiastic when the law was passed. The quota, they were concerned, didn't just mean more equality, but also more power and money for women.
Not Acts of Charity
As in France, Spain has also introduced a 40-percent quota for supervisory boards, which is to be filled by 2015. In the Netherlands, legislation is being drafted that would require a 30-percent quota for supervisory boards and executive boards. In addition, the European Commission is applying pressure by threatening a legally mandated quota if nothing happens by the end of 2011.
These are not acts of charity for people who have been oppressed until now. More female employees are good for the bottom line. Catalyst, an American women's research institute, has demonstrated that companies with particularly high numbers of female senior executives achieve a return on equity up to 53 percent higher than companies in which this is not the case.
German telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom plans to have 30 percent of senior management positions filled by women within the next five years. CEO René Obermann is married to a successful professional woman, the television journalist Maybrit Illner. Sociologists at the Humboldt University in Berlin have discovered that it helps when a CEO has a successful woman at his side, because it makes it easier for him to promote women in the workplace.
The quota is intended as an initial solution for a society that has held onto schematic gender roles for too long. Women have long outpaced men when it comes to educational achievements. Some 51 percent of university graduates are women. How can it be that only 3.2 percent of them make it into senior executive positions?
Why a Crutch Is Necessary
Until sometime in the last decade, the situation in Germany was as follows: Women could pursue careers -- real careers that took them to the very top and involved 70-hour weeks, the whole gamut -- but then they would almost never have children. Or they could start a family, focus on motherhood and perhaps work part-time once their children were old enough to go to school.
This is precisely what the journalist Caren Miosga, 41, is not doing. She is the female co-anchor of the German television news magazine "Tagesthemen" ("Issues of the Day") on the public channel ARD. Miosga is the first anchorwoman for a major news program who has two children at home and still works a full-time job, a job that keeps her at work until shortly before midnight two weeks out of every month. "Why doesn't anyone ask Tom Buhrow about his children?" says Miosga, referring to one of her male colleagues at "Tagesthemen". She doesn't say this in an aggressive way. Instead, it's as if she were surprised that this doesn't surprise her.
Sometimes she is harshly criticized by other mothers and asked how she can do this to her daughters. Conversely, Miosga has also had the experience, shortly after the birth of her second daughter, of a childless female colleague abrasively asking her: "Can't you go a day without breast-feeding?"
"Women often react with projections of their own stories, their own disappointments and fears," says Miosga, adding that although it took a while, she doesn't let these reactions bother her anymore. "There is considerable rivalry among women, because it's a struggle over the right role models." On a recent Friday afternoon, the four TV monitors in front of Miosga's desk were still switched off, and the jacket she would wear on air was still hanging on the door. Miosga has carved out a career, even without a quota, and yet she supports one nonetheless. When she was in college, she says, she thought quotas were ridiculous, "but then you learn a lot in life."
More Audible from Month to Month
Younger women tend to be less supportive of a quota. This was also the case at the CSU national convention. Even Family Minister Kristina Schröder has repeatedly said in recent months that she is opposed to quotas. Schröder is 33. Now she has changed her position and says she could imagine a flexible quota -- which sounds quite complicated and probably is.
The German government itself already constitutes a sort of vanguard of feminism . There are five female ministers sitting at Angela Merkel's cabinet table in addition to the chancellor herself. Women are at the helm of five out of 14 ministries, which makes for a female contingent of 30 percent. Merkel's youngest female cabinet minister, Schröder, is expecting a child in July. She also expects to return to work quickly.
The dispute over the quota is becoming more audible from month to month. Supporters say it could serve as a catalyst of modernization for German society. Nevertheless, the debate remains heated, both at SPIEGEL and in other companies -- and in families and political parties.
The left-leaning newspaper Die Tageszeitung, known as taz, is one of the few companies that introduced a quota long ago -- 30 years ago, to be exact. It is also currently headed by a woman, Editor-in-Chief Ines Pohl.
Her predecessor Bascha Mika, 57, held the top position, long seen as a hot seat, for 11 years. Mika is a woman who benefited from a quota, but it doesn't seem as if she suffered as a result. She now heads the cultural journalism program of study at the Berlin University of the Arts. As she opens the door to her office, looking so delicate and petite, we are suddenly overcome by a macho thought: So delicate and petite, and yet a top executive?
Only for Awhile
Why it worked becomes clear the minute she begins to speak. She gestures a lot as she talks, extending her arms in front of her body and above her head. Mika has a talent that many career advisors find lacking in women: She can fill a room, even a room as gloomy and drab as her dimly lit office at the university. "The quota is a crutch," she says. A native of Poland, Mika rolls her r's when she says words like "crrrrutch."
The quota is a good thing, she says, but only for a while. Eventually, it can be eliminated and, she says, should be eliminated. However, Mika adds, it is important for companies to have the experience of being run by women. At some point, once they have had that experience, and once it's been internalized, it is no longer an issue, says Mika.
Taz has a reputation for being a place where discussion is valued more than at any other German publication. Some find this amusing evidence of leftists' tendency to babble endlessly, but the results show that at least the discussions aren't doing any harm. Taz is a good newspaper, and it comes up with great headlines almost every day. Supporters of the quota repeatedly point out that mixed teams are more creative than same-sex teams.
Women Still Paid Less
But the fact that things are more egalitarian at taz than at other publications is also a result of salaries there being anything but ample. Taz editors, male and female, are rarely the breadwinners in their families. "As editor-in-chief, I always knew that because we couldn't pay a lot, we had to create incentives for people to stay with us," says Mika. Parental leave, she adds, was never a problem. In fact, many fathers took an entire year off, "and not those ridiculous two months that fathers often use to do nothing but pursue their hobbies." Put differently, the lack of funds has allowed progressive structures to develop at taz, including parental leave and flexible working hours. Moreover, the experiences at taz show that a company isn't doomed to fail as a result of such policies.
There is often a very simple reason for why men tend to pursue their careers in Germany while women stay at home or work part-time: Women are still paid less than men for comparable work. At the same time, women are also more likely to choose professions in which high incomes are not to be expected, so-called "women's professions," like nursing, teaching and geriatric care. As laudable as these professions are, they are not as financially rewarding as other lines of work, precisely because they are women's professions -- professions that society apparently values less.
The Counter-Arguments -- and Why They Are Wrong
These are reasons why Mika supports the quota. She only mentions the benefits, but the objections are loud and numerous, ranging from the ideological to the pragmatic.
Opponents ask: Where exactly are the women we expect to rise up in the hierarchies of business going to come from?
A squeeze is indeed inevitable. Yet woman already constitute 60 percent of all graduates of business and economics programs today. There are enough well-educated women in Germany. They just have to be encouraged and provided with the necessary tools for leadership positions.
Opponents say that a quota will result in discrimination against men.
They're right. But it'll only be for a few years, until it becomes normal for women to hold a third of all positions in professional life. In light of the distribution of power in the course of world history, there can be no question of unfairness. It will affect half a generation. Men will have to put up with it, and perhaps they'll even manage to pick up a few tips from women. Besides, men will still occupy 70 percent of all positions, at least for the time being.
Opponents say that business should be all about performance, not gender.
Those who use this argument are overlooking the fact that when it comes to the quota, performance and gender are equally important. Thomas Sattelberger, the chief human resources officer at Deutsche Telekom, says that this sort of an argument is the height of stupidity. "It's nothing but the response of a closed system to interlopers."
Opponents say that far too few women are pursuing degrees in engineering and physics.
That's true. However, the number of female students in these fields has gradually increased in recent years, and if a quota also encourages women to pursue careers in these professions, they will begin serving as role models for others. A possible solution would be to impose lower quotas in traditionally male professions for a period of time.
The opponents say that men need their careers to be happy, while women are also satisfied as housewives.
The results of a DIW study validate this notion. However, the study authors argue that this is the case because the contentment of women working as homemakers is a form of learned satisfaction, now that women have spent decades having to choose between a family and a career.
The opponents say that most women don't want to work under the conditions many men put up with -- 70 hour work weeks and being constantly on call.
It's true that many women really don't want this. But neither do many men, at least not anymore. Fathers also want to see their children. The quota is a tremendous opportunity to revise a German corporate culture that hasn't changed much since the 1950s. And many people aren't just interested in working less, but in working differently, as well. That means putting an end to notions of putting in face time at the office.
The Cowardice of Women?
Opponents of the quota include men and women. But many who support the quota today admit that they used to feel the same way the opponents do today. They also say that they had hoped that conditions would change in other ways. But that hasn't happened.
Laws create facts. They express a consensus within society that certain things are possible or no longer possible, as the case may be. They can put an end to things or mark a beginning.
In addition to the quota debate, another debate is looming. It will be triggered by a book written by Mika which will hit the shelves on Feb. 8. The title is trenchant: "Die Feigheit der Frauen" ("The Cowardice of Women"). Part of Mika's argument is that women bear part of the blame for the equality dilemma. It's an unpleasant subject.
Mika's book isn't as much a treatise on the working world as it is an examination of private relationships and the persistence of role stereotypes.
'Our Own Role in History'
In response to the rhetorical question of why women have not managed to destroy the structures that put them at a disadvantage, Mika writes: "Because we don't want to! Because we don't just suffer; we also enjoy ourselves. Making ourselves dependent has always been a female recipe for success." Women, Mika writes, are all too happy to fall back into old patterns. "The old structures guarantee us a place we know. Choosing it is risk-free and comfortable. We have publicly declared war on the male-dominated society, but we secretly benefit from its continued existence. We use the system as an excuse not to have to look at ourselves, to regard our own role in history."
Mika's book is an outburst of rage. Women are not victims, she writes, but "accomplices" and "collaborators." Collaboration is a concept that is applied to rogue regimes. To understand Mika, it's important to recognize this. She doesn't exonerate men, although her book sometimes comes awfully close, but she doesn't relieve women of their responsibility, either.
Just because fathers "are pushing fancy strollers," Mika writes, "and mothers are playing with their smart phones at the sandbox," doesn't mean anything has changed. "Our political influence is laughable, our economic threat potential a joke and our powers of social self-assertion smaller than those of any citizens' initiative against the renovation of a train station."
Mika believes that perhaps some women use having children as a way "to avoid other responsibilities in life," and that a baby is sometimes a way out for those who aren't getting anywhere in their careers. She has harsh words for the "latte-macchiato mothers," who merely pretend to work. "A project here, a translation there. For them, being means being taken care of," Mika writes. But the key question, she adds, is this: "How do I construct a comfort zone for myself."
Can Work and Life Be Balanced?
Is Mika right? One doesn't have to agree with her rage and her indignation, but some of her warnings are reasonable. Of course women aren't without blame for the dilemma.
Women who opt to stay at home entirely take a huge risk. More than 30 percent of marriages fail, and based on the current legal framework, women cannot expect to continue receiving support after a divorce. Many women face the prospect of poverty if they give up their jobs and their husbands subsequently divorce them or die prematurely.
It is indeed true that women often use status as a criterion in choosing a partner. This appears to be part of an erotic game, and there is no harm in recognizing that fact. The awareness enables women to make more informed decisions on how much they are willing to bet in this game: Their own livelihood? Their own professional development?
One can't have it both ways: Allowing the husband with the great job to pay for one's pleasant, though somewhat uncertain life, and even enjoying it, but then complaining about not having a say in the world outside the home.
Holding a responsible position in the working world necessarily means making a sacrifice. Someone who hopes to fill a position of leadership also has to be available when needed, or else things quickly start to go wrong. Taking three years off for maternity leave isn't an option. A company can't improvise for that long.
The Idea Lives On
Every line of work, without exception, has its hardships. Mika says that latte-macchiato mothers are only willing to accept the pleasant side of work, and that they demand more than they are willing to give. These kinds of women certainly exist, partly because it's a tradition in Germany. It arises from a courtly notion which later found its way into the middle classes: Women are entitled to a pleasant life. Those with even just a passing knowledge of the history of royal courts and the bourgeoisie know that life was rarely pleasant for princesses and the women of the bourgeoisie. But the idea lives on.
But how many latte-macchiato mothers are there really? Who belongs to this group and who doesn't? Working mothers take their children to kindergartens with eight-hour care. They are in a state of permanent rush -- in an effort to do justice to both their children and their work. It's all a question of perspective -- and of resentment. But that doesn't get us anywhere. Mika's choice of words, like "lazy" and "comfortable," is soaked in resentment. The emancipation debate of the last 40 years was shaped by women's reproaches against men. These reproaches have achieved almost nothing. Resentments between women won't do much good either.
Numbers and facts are the only things that can produce results today. That includes concrete and serious offers to invite women to participate. If it becomes an accepted fact that women are represented in all facets of the working world, the middle-class notions will also change. That's the only way it will work.
Barbara Vinken is a professor of Romance studies at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. She made a name for herself with her book "Die deutsche Mutter" ("The German Mother"), which was published 10 years ago and has become a standard work in the gender debate.
'Difficult Image of Women'
On a damp January day, Vinken is wearing light-colored fishnet stockings, patent leather pumps and a short, elegant skirt in her office at the university. The art magazine Monopol calls her "Germany's most glamorous professor." Vinken, the mother of a son, doesn't look at all the way one might imagine a "German mother," nor does she look remotely the way German career coaches imagine a woman in a male-dominated profession.
A conversation with Vinken soon reveals why this is the case. She says that the Germans have a "difficult image of women," and that "the conditions for women are not good here." Vinken constantly reverts to French as she speaks. She is German but heavily influenced by France, and if she has any role models, they are French women. French women usually work full-time, often pursuing careers just as men do, and in most cases they don't even think about whether to have children, but about how many children they want to have. Female politicians in France also wear skirts much of the time.
Vinken, 51, believes that women in Germany are hindered by cultural norms. "Women in Germany have internalized the notion that they have to choose: either to be housewives and exclusively mothers, or businesswomen who have to become like men to prevail in the professional world." The model of the woman who is purely a housewife is still socially accepted, says Vinken.
Femininity as a Shortcoming
Professional women, on the other hand, are viewed as "insufficient," Vinken believes, and points out that in Germany they are perceived to be lacking something if they are not mothers. Mothers who work full- or part-time, on the other hand, are constantly made to feel that they performing both roles "inadequately," by being "too feminine" in a male working world and, as a working woman, being "not feminine enough" at home. "No matter how women resolve this problem," says Vinken, "femininity in Germany is perceived as a shortcoming."
The reasons, says Vinken, are deeply embedded in history. She believes that the roots of the mother cult lie in Martin Luther's ideal of the family. The image of the über-mother, she adds, has been exploited throughout history, especially by the Nazis.
No one readily abandons role stereotypes if he or she doesn't recognize a benefit in doing so. People want recognition, and the easiest way to get it is to satisfy expectations. The quota would encourage women to run departments independently. New role models would be created.
No one carves out a successful career by being nice and modest, by not bragging about one's achievements, by feeling embarrassed to talk about money, and by trying to keep everyone happy instead of thinking about the future. This sort of behavior only negates the diligence that also typifies women.
The feminine virtues pay off during school and even at the university. Teachers like diligent female pupils, and diligent female students will always find a professor to mentor them. As a result, the education system produces alpha females with excellent grades in high school and later at the university. But the professional world isn't just about content. Assertiveness, visibility and the size of one's office are also important.
Is It Okay to Be a Quota Woman?
This is difficult to accept, especially for young women. It's an understandable position, but it's also fatal. Experts say that young women often suffer from a cognitive dissonance. They deny that their career prospects are limited, because it destroys their self-image. Young women believe that everything is in order, that emancipation is a fait accompli, and that they no longer need feminism. Young women speak like Family Minister Kristina Schröder. But if women deny that the problems exist, there is a great danger that they will fall into the usual traps.
Women near 40 have a better idea of how things are, and that these things are difficult to change. "Sometimes we are really afraid that we have lost an entire generation," says executive headhunter Helena Bommersheim, who works primarily in the publishing industry, where many women work but few make it to the top.
Fragmented résumés don't have to be a handicap, says Bommersheim. Her clients are increasingly asking her to find people with "change experiences." People who are familiar with the fragility of situations, says Bommersheim, often have good ideas and strategies to succeed in a fragmented working world. For Bommersheim, crisis experience translates into career opportunity.
This too -- the idea of a straight-line career -- could change if a quota is introduced. Men will not automatically become househusbands if women take jobs in senior management. They will have to negotiate new employment models with their employers. Their careers will become more fragmented. Having children, taking time off from work, taking care of one's parents in addition to working -- these are the tasks that come with life and for which society must make room, especially a society that needs new blood as urgently as Germany does.
Ursula von der Leyen was 47 when she became family minister. She entered high-level politics late, but is now seen as a potential chancellor candidate down the road. When she assumed her new post in Berlin, she was still sporting a little girl's hairstyle and had the nickname "Röschen" ("Little Rose"), and almost all stories about her in the German press featured pictures of her with her seven children. Hardly anyone would have thought that this deeply conservative woman would be capable of modernizing the image of the family in Germany at a record pace.
Von der Leyen quickly realized that it was a mistake to expose her children to the tabloids. She soon changed her hairstyle, and the nickname "Little Rose" no longer matched her new look. Von der Leyen is a master of precise error analysis, and because she has also applied this ability to herself, she is more effective than many men.
When asked to name the mistakes she made on her way to the top, the first thing she says is: "I spent far too much time answering the question: 'How on earth do you do it?'" An oversized, round clock hangs in her office, ensuring that the time is always in her field of vision.
A Loss of Guilt
A busy and intense work life like that led by von der Leyen comes at a price. This applies to men and women alike. Von der Leyen has decided not to talk about this price, which is why she seems almost uncannily perfect, like a person from another planet. She is a cabinet minister and has seven children, and she spends her weeks in Berlin and her weekends with her family. She has no appointments on weekends, and she keeps phone calls to an absolute minimum, she says. But it is hard to imagine how this can work in practice. "With discipline," says von der Leyen. She is vivacious and attractive, a powerful woman, and of course she is also adept at winning people over, using phrases like: "You and I, as experienced women, we both know that…"
When von der Leyen had her first child in the mid-1980s, she was a newly licensed doctor working at the University of Hannover Hospital. When she went on maternity leave, her supervisor said: "I'll expect to see you back in a year." In West Germany at the time, new mothers stayed at home for at least three years. That was the expectation, reinforced by both her mother and her mother-in-law. Von der Leyen went back to work after a year. "Professor Schneider was eons ahead of his time," she says today.
It is possible that Professor Schneider didn't just alter the direction of the life of his student at the time, but that he also changed an entire country. For von der Leyen, at any rate, it was her first key experience: A women being encouraged by a man, a model for a future with quotas.
The second key experience was the loss of her guilty conscience. With three children in tow, she accompanied her husband to Stanford University, where he had taken a teaching position. It was "completely traditional," she says today. In California, they witnessed how matter-of-factly couples in their age group shared the responsibilities of raising children, and how women worked without having to explain to anyone how they were able to manage.
Let's Get On With It
Nevertheless, by the time her seventh child was born, she still hadn't completed her education, while her husband had already been a professor for a long time. "And then I became a cabinet minister. Suddenly everything was flipped around." While she was in Berlin during the week, he was needed at home as a father. Both spouses were now sharing family duties and the financial burden of supporting a family.
Von der Leyen says that her husband was annoyed when he first heard the question: "Mr. von der Leyen, how on earth do you expect to manage, now that your wife is a minister?" What are you getting so upset about, she asked him, I've been hearing that for the last 20 years.
"I would love to have been a quota woman, if that meant being a pioneer," she says. It's a typical sentence for von der Leyen, revealing how much the minister enjoys being the perfect role model. At the same time, her use of the subjunctive implies that she got where she is today under her own steam. But the sentence also reveals an important acknowledgment: Being a "quota woman" is no longer a shortcoming.
After much research, we have arrived at an answer to the question: Would you do it? We would do it. As quota women. As department heads. Under working conditions that accommodate us. Occasionally being able to pick up our kids at lunchtime. No meetings after 5 p.m. And, the most important demand of all, being able to sit at the big conference table in the middle of the room along with seven other women. Thirty percent. SPIEGEL needs the quota. And so does the country. So let's get on with it.