Note: The commentary was first published in 'Der Spiegel'
For 127 years, girls in Germany have been able to take the A-levels and study. The first German girls' high school was opened in 1893. In the first few weeks, lessons were hardly possible, as visitors came from all over the country to observe the ‘outrageous events’. There were doubts as to whether girls were as resilient as boys and could seriously deal with learning material. But even men promptly agreed: Despite intensive studies of literature, none of the girls had “suffered even the slightest loss of true femininity”.
When the right to vote for women came into force over 100 years ago, the German social reformer Marie Juchacz said: "I would like to state here ... that we German women do not owe this government any thanks in the traditional sense. What this government did was a matter of principle: It gave women what they had been wrongfully denied until now”.
Neither the possibility of girls being allowed to graduate from high school nor the women’s right to vote came out of the blue. It was longed for, demanded, fought for and won.
Since then, it has been repeatedly established and proven: Women are no stupider than men, they can do things no less well, and the Republic has not gone down as a result of the reforms. Girls get the better school-leaving certificates and young women are more likely to graduate successfully. And yet there is one figure that has changed little over the decades: the number of women in leadership positions.
A historical review is worthwhile, in order to classify what is at stake these days – why our patience has finally run out. Why we will not be put off any longer.
It is almost 20 years ago that in 2001, the Minister of Family Affairs at the time, Ms. Bergmann, called for an equal opportunity quota. It failed, due to the resistance of the associations, and the Chancellor Schröder commented: "There is no need to make a law for every social problem”. They agreed on a recommendation ‘to promote equal opportunities for women and men in the private sector’. The companies promised to take care of it.
2011, the new edition: This time the demand for a 30 percent quota came from the Ministry of Labor. And – oh dear – even from a minister of the CDU. Ursula von der Leyen announced that in view of the ‘progress made over the past ten years, which can only be seen with a magnifying glass’, she no longer rules out a legal regulation on a minimum proportion of women in management positions in companies. Same old: Resistance from the most diverse movements, and again only a compromise for a voluntary commitment by companies.
It was not until 2015, as the Minister for Family Affairs at the time, Manuela Schwesig said, that a ‘historic milestone’ was achieved: the introduction of the law on executive positions. In this law, the proportion of female supervisory board members was set at a binding minimum of 30 percent. The fixed quota works – the number has risen to 35 percent to date. The skeptics who claimed that the law was damaging the economy when it was introduced were proven wrong. The feared wave of bankruptcies due to the law did not occur.
With the second part of the law, which concerns the board of directors, a voluntary target figure obligation of the enterprises was specified instead of fixed quota. It led to few changes. Only recently, the AllBright Foundation had to make a devastating verdict: Germany is taking a step backwards. Only 10.1 percent of board members in DAX companies are women. In comparison, the proportion of women on the boards of the 30 largest companies in the USA is 28.6 percent – and rising. 34 percent of the German companies surveyed do not have a single woman on the board and also state zero as a target figure. In other words: They have no plans to change the current situation.
Not a single large company in Germany is managed by a woman or reaches a female share of 30 percent. For comparison: In the USA this figure is 47 percent, in Great Britain it is 37 percent. In Germany, the figure was a shameful zero percent at the beginning of September. Zero! And this is despite the fact that there has been a kind of voluntary commitment for two decades. Does anyone seriously want to claim that women in Germany are less qualified than their colleagues abroad?
We know that decisions regarding employing are not only based on objectively measurable criteria. Sociology also calls this the ‘mini-me effect’. Rosabeth Moss Kanter from Harvard Business School first wrote about this in 1977, and noted that there is a tendency to similarity in selection procedures, because similar things are trusted more easily. In other words, we simply like to surround ourselves with people who are like ourselves.
It can be about appearance, origin, but also about gender. Men like to hire men. And by doing so they ensure that their own quota is always correct. That is humane, but not fair. Because it regularly puts parts of our society at a disadvantage. People who do not have the privilege of resembling the group of decision-makers have it harder. No matter how competent or qualified they are. And this group also includes women, at least when it comes to management positions.
Working in homogeneous groups is more pleasant for the majority. Because you don't have to leave your comfort zone as often. But it does not make decisions better. Those who work in diverse teams know that more perspectives mean more friction, but the results are always better. Without diversity, how do you expect to grasp the highly complex, globalized world of tomorrow? A joint study by the Boston Consulting Group and Deutsche Börse shows that diverse companies perform better on the stock market. A further analysis shows that diverse companies are more innovative. And these are not the only studies of that kind. So there is enough evidence.
What is apparently lacking is the will. Only those who lack nothing can stop and pause. Women are not among them.
And this brings us back to Marie Juchacz in 1919: It is the task of the legislator to give women what is wrongfully withheld from them.