Female Problems? She's Gone

Women executives on DAX company boards were greeted with much fanfare, but many left shortly after. Will a proposed new quota for female managers help?
Now you see her, now you don't.

They entered with much fanfare, they left quietly and not much has been heard from them since.

At the start of 2012, 17 women held board level positions at Germany’s 30 blue-chip DAX companies. Their advent was much feted, but by 2014, seven had left, most not of their own volition.

There was Heidi Stopper, human resources chief at media firm ProSiebenSat.1, who left the company in September for personal reasons. Eva-Lotta Sjöstedt decided to leave her position as managing director of Karstadt retail chain this July, while Deutsche Post DHL’s personnel chief Angela Titzrath has also decided to step down; both for personal reasons. None of the women were willing to talk about it.

In the same period, one in every four male board members left, or 42 of a total of 168 DAX company executives – meaning women are failing at twice the rate of their male counterparts.

Historically, the number of senior female executives in Germany has been low. However, the government has recently agreed to draw up legislation that will require that women occupy 30 percent of the seats on companies’ non-executive supervisory boards, which hire and fire chief executives and confirm executive board decisions.  Will that help, or could it prove to be part of the problem?

A study by Strategy& showed 38 percent of women senior executives who left the 2,500 top global companies didn’t go voluntarily; compared to 27 percent of men. On average, according to consultants Simon-Kucher, male senior executives in DAX companies remain on the job for eight years; three times as long as their female counterparts.

The women who leave board positions also tend to disappear from view. While most men who leave a board but don’t retire move on to other board-level jobs, women tend to keep a lower profile. Some sit on a few supervisory boards, a few return to their home countries. None makes a second comeback, whereas men who lose their board positions, in contrast, often sue or move on to other, similar positions.

Heiner Thorborg, a headhunter who advises companies on board level appointments, said the women board members lacked experience.

“Most of the women managers weren’t qualified for the job,” he said. They hadn’t had nearly as much responsibility before; none had ever managed so many people in a previous job, he said. They didn’t know the firms well enough, nor were they ready for the jobs they had.

Thomas Sattelberger, former human resources boss at Deutsche Telekom, disagreed. All the women were plenty qualified, he said.

“Management culture has been shaped by men for decades, and it’s one where men keep to themselves.” Mr. Sattelberger said that appointing a figurehead is not enough; that firms have not done enough to build up a pool of female talent to draw managers from.

CEOs want a woman on the board – but at the same time, they don’t want the culture to change. Regine Stachelhaus, Former board member, E.ON

Maybe the chances will be better for three new women board members drawn from within the companies they lead: Helga Jung from Allianz, Simone Menne from Lufthansa and Kathrin Menges of Henkel. They will have networks in the companies which people who join from outside lack.

Both Mr. Sattelberger and Mr. Thorburg have their doubts about the proposed quota.

Mr. Sattelberger believes a quota may help, but that it should be flexible so firms can decide themselves how many women to promote and when. It would force firms to deal with the question of women and how to promote them, he said. “Firms have neglected this question for over a decade. Without this law, nothing is going to change.”

One former board member, Brigitte Erderer, fell afoul of power politics. A former board member at energy giant E.ON responsible for personnel, she took on a tough job, to cut 10,000 jobs; 6,000 of those in Germany. She was bound to win enemies, not friends and when she refused to extend the contract of the works council representative, she was later told she had to go. A deal had been made in the background, it later seemed. On reflection, Ms. Erderer said, “I focused on the job in hand; I didn’t think about that really, it was about power structures.”

Angela Hornberg, a personnel advisor believes part of the reason the managers failed was that they took on jobs that their male colleagues might have turned down. Plus, she said, when joining a firm as a newcomer, women don’t build up networks the same way as men do. “They tend to struggle alone.”

Regine Stachelhaus was also a board member responsible for personnel at E.ON. She was also responsible for a job-cutting program.

She reflected on the situation for women on DAX company boards. “CEOs want a woman on the board – but at the same time, they don’t want the culture to change. When firms are doing well, they’re happy to support women. But when things go wrong, many fall back to older ways of behaving.”

Recently, four women joined the boards of DAX companies. In contrast to the appointments in 2012, all are insiders. Lisa Davies rose up through the ranks at Siemens, as did Melanie Kreis at Deutsche Post DHL and Guiseppina Albo at Munich Re.

If the theory is that newcomers to companies have it harder, perhaps these new female board members will fare better.


This is an abridged version of an article which originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]