Kerstin Berghoff-Ising is one of the rare women on the board of directors at one of Germany's more than 400 savings banks.
She's the head of organization and IT, personnel, and audit and compliance departments at the Sparkasse Hannover, or Hannover Savings Bank, which also happens to be well above the average gender ratio, with a female contingent of 50 percent at the top.
According to a Handelsblatt survey early this year, women hold only 10 of the 185 executive positions at the 50 largest members of the German Savings Bank Finance Group, or DSGV, which are governed by public law. That's just 5.4 percent of the total.
"The development of management positions takes time," said Ms. Berghoff-Ising, who joined the board at the end of 2014. "At Sparkasse Hannover, my colleagues were already saying several years ago: 'We want women at the second level of level of management, with an eye toward the first.'"
This is time many other savings banks apparently have not taken. Nor has the other major network of small banks in Germany, the cooperative institutions known as the Volksbank and Raiffeisenbank group. They even have fewer women in top management than the savings banks.
According to the National Association of German Cooperative Banks, or BVR, women hold 3.6 percent of top management positions in the roughly 1,000 banks in that group.
For the 50 largest credit unions, including Sparda banks and special institutions, women make up only 4.6 percent of executive board members. The BVR is all too aware of the fact that this is too little. "Of course, this number is not satisfactory," a spokesman said.
The association of savings banks, the DSGV, is also promising improvement, noting that there is a will and intent to increase the number of women in top management. "We expressly want to see more women in leadership positions," said a spokesman.
More than a year ago, the association stated that the proportion of women in executive positions at its member savings banks was 5.1 percent – despite the fact that more than 60 percent of all savings bank employees are women. Women make up about 26 percent of second-tier management positions.
Still, very few women are appointed to the executive boards. Three years ago, DSGV President Georg Fahrenschon said that half of the executive positions becoming available should be filled by women as soon as possible.
"In that case, a proportion of women across all levels of the hierarchy of at least 20 percent would be realistic in the medium term," he said.
The issue of gender equity is near the bottom of the agenda of German financial institutions.
With quotients of about 5 percent, savings banks and cooperative banks are performing even worse than large banks when it comes to women leaders. According to a study by the ZEB management-consulting firm, the overall proportion of women on the executive boards of German banks is 11 percent, while the German Institute for Economic Research recently found that women make up 7.6 percent of senior executive positions in Germany's 100 largest financial institutions.
"The advancement of women is a question of professional personnel management and strategic planning. This comes more naturally to larger banks," said ZEB partner Katrin Lumma.
But the numbers are still woefully low compared to the 23 percent average of women leaders at 220 financial firms across Europe, with Norway and Sweden leading the pack, according to numbers released in January by London-based research firm New Financial. That was up 3 percent compared to the previous year.
Even that is still below the global average of 25 percent of women in senior management positions in the financial industry, according to a 2015 report by consulting firm Grant Thornton.
The numbers are a testament to how the entire industry struggles with the advancement of women. "In general, banks cling to rigid ideas of how exactly a position should be organized," said Ms. Lumma. This is true, for example, of part-time models, for which there have been only cautious approaches when it comes to executive positions, she added.
On the whole, the issue of gender equity is near the bottom of the agenda of German financial institutions, according to a recent ZEB study based on a survey of 900 bankers from 579 banks. When asked which problems personnel managers are most concerned with on an everyday basis, the improvement of advancement opportunities for female bankers was ranked second to last. Little has changed in this respect compared to the surveys conducted in 2011 and 2013, when the advancement of women was at the very bottom of the list of priorities.
The German Savings Banks Association and the National Association of Cooperative Banks also note that little has changed in the top management of banks.
In the case of cooperative banks, there is "very often a complete lack of female applicants" for executive positions, said the cooperative banks association. It suspects that this is partly because attaining the qualifications for top banking positions is a costly endeavor for employees, especially at a time when "family planning issues haven't been resolved yet." It also cites the location of cooperative banks in rural regions, where "conventional family structures may still play a greater role."
Rolf Stokburger, managing partner with personnel consulting firm Boyden Deutschland, also cites the relative lack of female applicants for executive positions at savings banks, cooperative banks and private banks.
"It is important that women with substantial expertise in one area of a bank diversify their skills to be seen as sufficiently qualified by regulators. Regulations have become much more stringent when it comes to the approval of senior executives," said Mr. Stokburger. However, he added, he does expect to see "major changes," noting that there will be a lot more women in top management just five years from now.
There has been some improvement at a few banks already. At Berliner Volksbank, for example, Marija Kolak is about to be promoted to a position on the executive board, where women already make up 30 percent of members.
Deutsche Apotheker- und Ärztebank (Apobank), the largest cooperative bank next to DZ and WGZ Bank, is also taking strides in this direction. It aims to increase women in posts just below the executive level from 10 to 15 percent by the summer of 2017, and to 25 percent by the summer of 2027.
"The advancement of women in leadership positions is a matter of course for us," said a representative of Apobank, which has launched internal promotion and mentoring programs to provide women with the necessary skills for senior management positions. However, there are still no women on the bank's executive board, or any plans to add them.
Other large cooperative banks are taking similar approaches. Sparda Bank Baden-Württemberg, which currently has an all-male executive board, strives to achieve a 30-percent quotient of women across all management positions. This is already the case today, except on the executive board. And in the third tier of management, women make up more than 40 percent of employees.
Sparkasse Köln Bonn also wants to increase the proportion of women in managerial positions. So far, women hold 16 percent of positions at the managerial level below the executive board, a number with which the bank has achieved its self-imposed – but not especially ambitious – goal. The bank's chief representative Christiane Weigand is eventually expected to be appointed to the executive board.
There could also be an external catalyst to create more movement in this direction. Banks are under pressure, in light of very low interest rates, growing regulation and digitization of their business. Women in top jobs could have an advantage in this environment, given their potential ability to more effectively explain upcoming changes with a bank and inspire enthusiasm in employees.
"As our industry is in turmoil and many things are changing for employees, the right communication is important," said Hannover Savings Bank Executive Board member Kerstin Berghoff-Ising.
Elisabeth Atzler is banking and financial correspondent for Handelsblatt based in Frankfurt. Kristen Allen of Handelsblatt Global Edition contributed to this story. To contact the author: [email protected]