Gender Initiative Changing ThyssenKrupp, One Woman at a Time

Germany's largest steel company has set out to transform its corporate culture and leadership through greater diversity. More female top managers are part of the plan.
Ms. Stolke has expanded ThyssenKrupp's company kindergarten.

Barbara Stolke is the face of change at ThyssenKrupp. The head of diversity and inclusion is on the front line of Chief Executive Heinrich Hiesinger's battle to radically transform the company.

Mr. Hiesinger has named openness, honesty and transparency as well as integrity and mutual appreciation as key factors for the company to succeed in a changing business environment. He also wants to fill 15 percent of managerial positions with women by 2019.

This is an about-face for a company whose former supervisory board chairman, Gerhard Cromme, once publicly denied that there was a need for a women’s quota or female supervisory board members.

Mr. Hiesinger has learned some hard lessons from the steel and engineering company’s lack of diversity. The billion-euro investment in a new Brazilian steel mill has failed, in no small part because of German managers calling the shots without using local expertise.

“That was a diversity problem,” Ms. Stolke said, admitting to the failure of other German management teams in local markets.

We’re pursuing diversity not out of the goodness of our hearts but because we’re convinced it will make us more successful. Barbara Stolke,, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at ThyssenKrupp

Another example: A new product by ThyssenKrupp Elevator flopped in the United States because none of the German managers noticed that measurements on the design documents were in the metric system.

Understandably, Ms. Stolke, a lawyer by training who joined ThyssenKrupp’s legal division in 2008 after working with the insurance company Arag, prefers to talk about success stories. She pointed to the company penetrating Spanish-speaking markets in the United States after a manager with a Hispanic background took over the sales division.

“We’re pursuing diversity not out of the goodness of our hearts but because we’re convinced it will make us more successful,” Mr. Stoke said, adding she has “full support” from the top to spread the message.

As a sign of the changing times, Mr. Hiesinger has taken over patronage of the company’s internal women’s network “Web of Women,” or “Wow.” At a meeting in December, he discussed with female employees and the human resources head, Oliver Burkhard, career barriers and part-time management opportunities.He also encouraged the women to turn to their respective board member if they had any problems.

It is particularly challenging when a company that has been producing steel since the 19th century may put that history behind it.

Ms. Stolke is aware that prejudices can stand in the way of diversity and wants to overcome them. At the company’s annual leadership conference last year, managers from around the world participated in a workshop she held where they were asked to put themselves in the position of a mother with childcare problems, a homosexual, or a colleague with Kurdish roots and answer questions about office life from their point of view. The session was well received by the managers and will be offered to all employees.

These are the first steps in a long journey, Ms. Stolke conceded. “ThyssenKrupp is a tanker, and like any other large corporation, changing direction is a challenge,” she said.

It is particularly challenging when a company that has been producing steel since the 19th century may put that history behind it.

In December, when announcing reduced production at one of the group’s most modern steel mills, Mr. Hiesinger said ThyssenKrupp is no longer a steel company and that business decisions are “not limited by our heritage.” That statement sent temperatures soaring among the steelworkers at the production site. More than 3,500 of them headed directly to the headquarters in protest.



Annegret Finke jointed Krupp in early 1970, and has been on the workers’ council for more than 20 years. Ms. Finke shared child-raising duties of her daughter with her husband at a time when there were no changing rooms for women at the steel company. For decades, she has sought to inspire more young women to pursue technical professions.

Gabriele Sons, in human resources at ThyssenKrupp Elevator, oversees the needs of 50,000 employees worldwide. She admits that it can be difficult for women to pursue a career and manage a family at the same time. She admitted that having children as she was climbing the corporate latter was not an option.

Women should be entitled to have a family and a career and are needed as managers, Ms. Sons said, referring to Ms. Stolke’s appointment an “extremely overdue step.”

Corinna Nohn is a reporter at Handelsblatt. To contact the author: [email protected]