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What is Wrong with Germany, Mrs Hornberg?

by Angela Hornberg

Angela Hornberg is a senior executive search consultant. Born in Italy, she is very well connected with the top management levels of the German economy. What does she think about equal opportunities in Germany? Let's put it this way: she is toying with the idea of emigrating – to Canada. A rage speech that should encourage us to see the facts as they are and act accordingly

When women say, that they don’t want to adapt and bend over backwards for their career, that it is important to them to remain authentic, it may sound good at first. But it shows a misjudgement of a fact: women are a cultural minority in Germany ‘s executive floors and are perceived as “foreign beings” – yes, just like foreigners. I taught intercultural communication at the university. There are parallels here, because the working world is “male-dominated”, i.e. it is shaped, to a large extent, by male communication and socialisation structures: Hierarchies are important, loyalty to the boss – also known as “clique”– competitive thinking and behaviour are predominant, it is important not to show any weaknesses and to appear “vigorous”. All these are the signs, that someone is part of the circle.

So when we, women, go to work in the morning, it is as if we are entering a different cultural area. Imagine – someone goes to Japan on business. They prepare themselves, learn a few words and greetings in Japanese, they learn how to hand over a business card with two hands, etc. You wouldn’t think of ordering a schnitzel in the middle of Tokyo, would you? In other countries we adapt, we respect and often even appreciate the “otherness” of foreign cultures. We learn to do so. So why act differently in the “foreign/male” culture of the working world?

As an Italian, I know what I am talking about. If I pay my taxes in Germany, if I don’t pass on the red lights, then I “bend” myself every day. Because paying taxes and following traffic rules are not in my DNA. But I have the choice: either follow these rules or leave, nobody forces me to stay. Isn’t it much more smart to leave the comfort zone of your expectations from time to time, to behave differently, learn something new about yourself and to grow from it?

Additionally, if you belong to a minority, you can hardly change the system. But you can “integrate” yourself and learn. After all, this is what Germans expect from foreigners coming here, isn’t it? And it can be very exciting. It’s not about denying oneself, about becoming a better “German” or “Japanese”, but about internalizing the language and rituals and a different social “togetherness”.

To break through social norms, you need – and this is scientifically substantiated – a critical mass of 25 percent. From this value on, the group dynamics change and the majority tends to adopt the alternative norm. Until then, things will run as they have been for the past 50 years.

It is not at all the case, that men have something against us on principle. They can stand one woman, as long as she doesn’t become their superior. German culture is conservative.

It’s part of the male sense of self-worth that they must rule the world. And that’s when they’re busy making arguments against quotas. The most prominent one: there are not enough women with the right qualifications, especially when it comes to technical skills. Once, one of my colleagues conducted a research on how many female MINT professors there are at German universities. There are over 300 of them, and even if only one in three is considering a seat on a supervisory board, that makes 100 women with top technical or scientific qualifications. Any more questions?

It is easy to imagine that the topic of diversity and the demands associated with it don’t inspire everyone. Men are reluctant to give up their power. And sometimes the demand is undermined out of pure defiance. In such cases, the measures can even have a counterproductive effect. I know the chief controller of a larger company, who would have been perfectly suited to become the company’s CFO. There is the attitude of the management in terms of diversity: Now, less than ever. All of this is not exactly encouraging. Not to mention the fact, that Germany is not only lagging behind in social issues, but is also slipping into a crisis economically and still believes in its power, in the primacy of the car companies.

People like to refer to Norway when they talk about fairer, more modern social systems. However, France, Spain and Italy are so much further along. There are already quotas there. Many people don’t know that. Germany “overslept” a lot. Here, people feel powerless, here they say that there’s nothing they can do and we obey. It simply leaves me helpless. A friend of mine wanted to get back to her job after her first child. She lives in Bad Homburg, one of the richest communities in Germany. The problem was, that there weren’t enough daycare places. She said she wanted to write a letter to the mayor. A letter! I asked her why they didn’t organize a sit-in, in front of the town hall with other affected women to make some real noise. She looked at me as if I’d advised her to rob a bank. Where are the women demonstrating in Germany? When I think back about my youth in the 70’s, every year on March 8th, the icons of the women’s movement took to the streets: Nobel Prize winner Rita Levi-Montalcini (over 70 years old at the time), Franca Rame, Emma Bonino. And on the 14th of June 2019 (yes, last year) in Switzerland (yes, in the small neighbouring country!) Swiss women organised a national day of strikes. In Zurich alone there were 160,000 – with 400,000 inhabitants, in the whole of Switzerland more than 500,000.

I’m not very hopeful here. Even all those women’s networks in Germany are not bringing any real change. Why are male networks so efficient? Because men understand that networks are a give and take, a pull and push, a recommendation here, a recommendation there. Meanwhile, women still rely on the myth of performance. They still believe that if they are just good enough, they will get ahead, as if it’s a law of nature. Yes, it was like that in school, where the first socialization took place. In the “education” system, from primary school all the way to the doctorate, performance is measured objectively and transparently, and good performance means good grades and success. In this system, we thrive more than men: More female graduates, better university degrees, shorter study periods. And this is the kind of mindset with which we enter the male-dominated professional world. Several years pass before we realize – if we do it at all and don’t develop a burn-out or fall into frustration and self-pity – that the assessment of performance in the male working world is anything but objective and transparent. Women make a huge mistake, when they hear “It’s all about professional competence” and they believe that.

I had a crucial experience when I spoke with a human resources manager of a large private equity firm. In this area, I thought, the only thing that counts is performance. It’s all about profit. It doesn’t matter who makes it. Whether it’s a man or a woman. Black, white, blue, green, fat, thin. Right? The human resources manager said: “Yes, we have 50 percent women – at least, attention, to the limit of professional competence. They start out, they’re the best analysts, they become associates quickly. And then, after four or five years, the male colleagues pass them by. When the first does, they don’t think much of it, in case of the second one, they are irritated and when the third passes them, then they talk to the HR. Women then work even harder, because they think they are not good enough and get a burnout. Or they give up on their career and have children.

What does that mean for us? Let’s practice intercultural competence and become citizens of many cultures. Then, with more know-how and more successfully, we will be able to take up the space we are entitled to in the economy and in the society.

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