W20 Summit Wanted: More Women in Business

Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Donald Trump's daughter Ivanka met at the W20 summit in Hamburg to discuss support for female executives and entrepreneurs. Progress on that front in the host country is slow.
Economics Minister Brigitte Zypries is pushing for more women in business. Picture source: G20

Angela Merkel and Ivanka Trump were meeting in Berlin Wednesday at the W20 summit, a satellite gathering of the G20 leaders' meeting to take place in Germany in July. The summit pushes for more women in boardrooms and as entrepreneurs amid concerns that European countries, including Germany, are not doing enough to boost gender parity at the top.

EU data shows 24 percent of top managers are women, double the rate in 2010 but still well below the level of their male counterparts. In Germany, the picture is more nuanced. The country is among the better performers, but is moving slowly like most others.

“Progress toward better female representation in leadership is happening in most developed and emerging economies, but too slowly,” said Elke Holst, the director of gender research at the German Institute for Economic Research, or DIW Berlin.

Twenty nine executives, including Innogy Chief Executive Peter Terium and Boehringer Chief Financial Officer Simone Menne, will sign a letter at the W20 calling for measures to help more women launch and manage businesses and end discrimination against women gaining access to capital. According to an OECD study, women find it far more difficult harder to raise capital to start a business than men.

We need to end, once and for all, the received idea that business is a male activity. Brigitte Zypries, Economics Minister

Only a fraction of company founders in Germany are women. Companies have begun to address this issue by setting up networking and mentor programs and also by offering flexible working time – often seen as another stumbling block to women’s progress. Tire manufacturer Continental, for example, offers highly flexible working hours in 21 of the countries in which it operates, covering 90 percent of staff.

The number of female executives in Germany is rising in some companies, less so in others. In 2010, chemicals giant BASF, by its own account, had just 15 percent women in senior positions. Today, the figure is close to 20 percent.

A DIW Berlin study showed that 17 of Germany’s 30 DAX-listed companies have at least one woman on their management board. Six years ago, it was only six. But the picture among the top 200 firms in the country is less impressive, with just 30 percent of them having female executives.

Total female representation in the boardrooms of German’s top 30 firms is 27 percent, putting the country in 7th place in Europe. In France, the equivalent figure is 37 percent and in Sweden 36 percent.

In January, Brigitte Zypries became Germany’s first female economics minister. One of her first priorities was to support women in business.

“Studies show that equality of opportunity is a very concrete factor in economic growth, and diversity in leadership makes firms more competitive,” she told Handelsblatt. “We need to end, once and for all, the received idea that business is a male activity.”

Some observers put additional emphasis on women’s attitudes. “Politicians and business people must step up, but women must be courageous and self-confident in their career choices; they have to use opportunities and win success in what has been a male environment,” said Stephanie Bschorr, president of the Association of German Women Entrepreneurs, or VdU, which helped organize the Berlin summit.

Ms. Merkel’s commitment to women in business  is widely praised. “I was so pleased when I heard that Angela Merkel was giving the W20 real priority – she sets a great example,” Jaqueline Fuller, head of Google’s foundation Google.org, told Handelsblatt. The foundation donates $100 million annually to projects, including studies examining the shortage of women in technology companies.

“It is a great chance that so many high-powered women have come together to seek solutions,” Ms. Fuller said.


Dana Heide is a correspondent for Handelsblatt in Berlin, focusing on politics and economics. Donata Riedel covers economic policy for Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]