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Germany wants more women in boardroom
December 22, 2014, 5:04 pm

Three grinning businessmen stand in a row clutching two rather startled cleaning ladies. "We have achieved our Frauenquote!" they proclaim. It's just one of the cartoons inspired by the introduction of Germany's "Frauenquote" law.

From 2016, 30% of supervisory board positions must be held by women. It follows similar moves by Norway, Italy and the Netherlands. The law, which is initially expected to affect about 100 large German firms, has been opposed, debated - and much derided.

Take another cartoon - three businessmen in suits and ties stare dumbfounded at a colleague. Standing proudly in front of his desk, he too sports a suit jacket. But he's also wearing a short skirt and heels.

"The Frauenquote, dear sirs," he announces, "can only happen step by step!"

Germany's Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth smiles, but I sense a degree of exasperation in Manuela Schwesig's voice.

"The law is here now, but the debate we've experienced in the last weeks and months show how necessary it is, how dominated the whole culture still is by men," she says.

Pay gap

It has also raised many questions about the position of women in German society. The statistics are not encouraging. Across Europe women are paid less than men. But the pay gap in Germany is especially high at 22%. In the UK women it's 19%, and the EU average is 16%.

At board level, German women fill 18.9% of the positions on the supervisory boards of 160 of the largest German companies. And just 5.8% of chief executives are women, according to the group who've campaigned for the quotas. It is surprising, perhaps, for a country with a female chancellor and a government that consists of nearly 40% women.

As Ms Schwesig herself explains: "We have very educated and very tough women who can do every job - but there's still a glass ceiling, and I still want to break through it, not just in politics but also in industry."

The reaction to Ms Schwesig and her female peers reveals a great deal about social attitudes towards women here. One senior male politician was forced to apologise recently after he told her to "stop whining" during a debate about the quota.

And Ms Schwesig, who comes from one of the few German states with a seaside, is nicknamed "Kuesten Barbie" - Coastal Barbie - by conservative MPs. "How a woman dresses is an issue," says Prof Daniela Grunow, from Goethe University in Frankfurt. "We had big debates a few years ago about Angela Merkel's hair and dress.

"We also had this debate about whether (former Chancellor) Gerhard Schroeder dyed his hair or not, so it can also happen to men. But it's an indication of how women are not seen as equal."

Outdated perceptions

Prof Grunow welcomes the quotas as a starting point for cultural change. Because policy has, until recently, she maintains, been based on old perceptions of the role of women.

Take the concept of "Kinder, Kueche, Kirche" - the traditional German ideal that a woman be devoted to children, kitchen and church. Even today, in some parts of the country, a woman who combines a paid job with bringing up children is labelled a "Rabenmutter" a raven mother - a creature who abandons and neglects her children.

When it comes to gender equality, Prof Grunow says: "The real difficulty comes when women have children. "Where the divide lies is the transition to parenthood. That is where Germany needs to develop clearer strategies."

There have been attempts to improve provision for German families; more childcare places and so-called "Elterngeld" - maternity and paternity pay. But Dr Janine Bernhardt, from the German think tank WZB, says the state could do more.

"What is very important is that we change our mentality about our working time norms because right now you can only have a career if you work full time and full time means 40 hours plus on average, long hours in the workplace," she says. "If you have a family, you can't manage both. This is also a problem for fathers. To increase labour market reach to women, we need to change our working time norms."

Of course, those who support Frauenquote hope much of this will happen naturally once there are more women in the boardroom.

Limited impact

But, while Norway's quota - introduced nearly 10 years ago - has increased the number of women at board level, according to one recent study it has had no impact on the gender pay gap and changed little for businesswomen outside the boardroom. The women who are appointed to Germany's boards will have a big responsibility, according to Monika Schulz-Strelow, from Frauen in die Aufsichtsraete, the group which campaigned for the quotas.

"Not only must men learn and change - but a lot of women have to take over a certain role because they are a role model. They have to promote women. "It will be a learning curve for a lot of women in Germany." And it's a new departure for many German firms too.

There's been fierce resistance from some to the legislation. "It makes no economic sense," said Karl-Ludwig Kley, chairman of the executive board of pharmaceutical giant Merck. On the other hand, Deutsche Telekom has - very publicly - pledged to meet the quota a year early.

The company has also introduced shortlist quotas and increased the number of female managers. Interestingly, Europe's most powerful woman, Angela Merkel, initially opposed the Frauenquote but then changed her mind.

Last month, she told parliament: "This law is an important step for equality because it will initiate cultural change in the workplace. "It has been decided, and it is coming. "We can't afford to do without the skills of women."

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