Glass Ceiling Building a New Girls Network

Germany has introduced a 30-percent gender quota for supervisory boards. Do women need special training to fit the bill or do they simply need to improve their networking skills?
She's one of the few who made it to the top: Claudia Nemat.

Claudia Nemat was standing at the podium in front of a small but influential audience. “We have to talk more about each other,” the member of Deutsche Telekom’s board of management, told the 29 women present at the event in Berlin. She didn’t mean gossip or scandal, but rather that female senior managers should be recommending each other when an executive vacancy opens up.

The executive in charge of Europe & Technology at the German telecoms giant was speaking during a round of discussions with Viviane Reding, the former European Commissioner for justice and now a member of the European Parliament; Angelika Huber-Strasser, a partner at the corporate consultancy firm KPMG; and Jörg Rocholl, president of the Berlin-based private business school, ESMT.

The attempts to get more women into top management roles have not progressed particularly well in recent years. However, in March, the German parliament passed a law stipulating that a minimum of 30 percent of supervisory boards in 108 listed companies be made up of women and the percentage of women in top management also must be increased. Since then, employers have shifted into high gear.

Companies are offering training courses with names such as “All Fired Up with Facts and Care” or “From Coworker to Boss.” They are creating mentoring programs and launching coaching with leadership experts in one-on-one discussions. But do women seeking a high-profile career need this special treatment?

Ms. Nemat is skeptical. She went through a number of courses and seminars for leadership talent on subjects ranging from international management and cooperation to intercultural cooperation. Often, she was the lone woman among men, just as she is an exception in the management circle of Germany’s largest companies.

When it comes to filling a post, men often are willing to invite women for a job interview, but they often say they don’t know of a suitable woman. Claudia Nemat, Board Member, Deutsche Telekom

A study of 160 German listed companies by the consultancy firm Ernst & Young found that only 36 of 667 board members were women, or just 5.4 percent. In contrast, 40 percent of companies traded on the DAX have at least one woman on the board, but for two-thirds of the firms, it is still just the one. That’s still the case at Deutsche Telekom, which five years ago proclaimed a gender quota of 30 percent, driven by its former head of personnel, Thomas Sattelberger, and René Obermann, the chief executive at the time. Despite those efforts, only a quarter of management positions at the company are held by women.

It’s clearly not easy for women in German industry to attain top positions. For one thing, many companies continue to simply ignore the problem. A recent survey by the consultancy firm Kienbaum found about 63 percent of the 187 personnel managers questioned still are not using succession planning to raise the percentage of women in management.

Another reason is that many people remain unaware of how deeply rooted gender role images are in behavior. Ms. Nemat calls it the “human herd mentality,” adding, “When all are equal, the tendency is to think you and the others are good.” Other points of view are subconsciously ignored, a problem that is not specific to men. “You have to make a change in the system,” she said. “If you let things go on as before, nothing will happen.”

That’s the goal driving the initiative embraced by German Chancellor Angela Merkel dubbed, “Management Issues: Shaping Change for Women and Me.” The project, which includes representatives from business, science and politics, seeks to target inequalities and take countermeasures against the influence of deeply-held gender stereotypes through various programs and discussion events.

But how can companies create equal treatment? Is a special training program for women needed if the problem is caused by men? Do mentoring or coaching programs help?

Marion Knaths is the manager of Sheboss in Hamburg, which offers leadership training seminars for women. “Generally, managers are well advised to further develop themselves,” she said. “That doesn’t apply just to women.” However, women approach some subjects, such as communications, differently. While it is accepted that men make a forceful impression, the same behavior often is unwelcome in women, Ms. Knaths said, noting the line between friendly and tough is more narrow for women in management. But the optimum can be reached when women learn to use their strengths better, she said. “Away with false modesty,” she added.

Claudia Bender, founder of the Akademie Frontfrauen, also offers seminars for women. “Technically seen, women are just as good or bad as men,” she said, but women must be encouraged to accept new challenges. “They often underestimate themselves, are more reluctant and are very inclined toward propriety,” she explained, noting women often get caught up in details. Training courses can help overcome this shortcoming.

Fewer Females-01

Thomas Schulz, head of human resources at DB Schenker Logistics, takes another approach and doesn’t provide special training. “We make no exceptions,” he said. “Men and women go through the same programs with us.” However, there is a mentoring program for women executives designed to smooth the path toward a career in operational business. Women in middle management and above chosen for the program are given 18 months of special coaching and individual personnel development. “Our industry is still very male dominated,” Mr. Schulz said. “With such targeted programs, the professional environment for women is changed.” The reaction within the company is consistently positive among men as well as women, he added.

A large number of participants in the Kienbaum survey use career development and mentoring programs to promote talent, regardless of gender, but almost 40 percent of the companies queried had no special programs for women. “It can clearly be seen that the companies already following a clearly defined strategy of career development for women are more committed to such promotional measures than those who have no strategy,” said Kienbaum business manager Walter Jochmann.

Women promoting themselves through networking -- is that the last resort? Do they need to form a New Girls Club as a counterweight to the Old Boys Clubs? “There is no harm in women networks, but it is important to have a diversified network,” said personnel consultant Anke Hoffmann of Deininger Consult, which fills vacant top positions in business and politics. “Women are still most likely to be promoted by men today. That is why it is important to not only have women in the network.”

Male associations work differently, Ms. Hoffman said, noting, “The principle of give and take isn’t yet so pronounced with women.” They have a different awareness of risks and are unsure when it comes to assigning jobs and exchanging information. This wariness is debilitating. “When men come into a leadership position, they quickly replace the people near them, while women make the best of the existing team,” Ms. Hoffman said. “They don’t use their networks in doing this. But they are slowly learning. That is why it is important to have female role models.”

Viviane Reding is one of these role models. Until 2014, she was vice-president of the European Commission and held the justice portfolio, and she is generally credited with originating the idea of gender quotas in boardrooms. She was often underestimated over the course of her career and had to fight to get ahead, but she has no regrets. “Women are different, thank God,” she said. “But they don’t need special promoting because of it.”

Fewer Females 2-01

Isn’t a quota special treatment? In the legislation she drafted, Ms. Reding was less interested in putting women in certain management positions than that they be included in the selection process. “It isn’t a matter of promoting a woman because she is a woman,” she said. “But about not wasting female talent and that is happening today.”

Skilled talent is being lost while society ages. New abilities and fresh ideas are urgently needed. Companies require the widest possible selection base to find the best. Said Ms. Reding, “For women to get into the base at all, they have to be helped a bit.”

This is also what Deutsche Telekom’s Ms. Nemat seeks, but she too is uninterested in giving women special training. “The supervisory board training this year only included women, but it was not just for women,” she declared, noting that in the coming year, men also will be included. However, she wanted to first get women into the network and build a talent pool. “When it comes to filling a post, men often are willing to invite women for a job interview, but they often state they don’t know of a suitable woman. Now, there is a list with names. So the training also serves to make female talent visible,” she said at the close of the recent Berlin event.

The Berlin city palace across the street is scheduled to open in the second half of 2019. It remains to be seen how many women will have made it to the top of German industry by then.


Ina Karabasz is an editor with Handelsblatt Live. To contact the author: [email protected]