Back in Germany

by Natascha Zeljko

Claudia Schaller and Miriam Jansche both lived and worked in San Francisco for many years. They have been back in Germany for two years and are surprised about where it stands in terms of gender diversity. A double and by the way eye-opening interview

What was your impression of Germany after all those years in the USA? 

(Claudia) I moved to the US as a student, so I didn’t have a direct comparison regarding workplace equality until two years ago. There were two incidents though which I found quite remarkable. During my time at a San Francisco-based innovation consultancy my boss and I pitched at a German bank in Frankfurt. Due to the combination older man with younger woman, our business partners in Germany assumed I must be his personal assistant. And so was I treated. I had to clarify the situation by handing out my business cards with PhD title on it. Another interesting experience was back in 2012. In my role as Advisor for the German American Chamber of Commerce, I organized a conference about the “Future of Mobility” in Los Angeles. German companies should present themselves and their innovations to the US market. It was not possible to recruit female speakers from the mobility sector into the panel – there simply weren’t any in Germany. At least back then. And so the conference took place with twelve male speakers; documented with a strange group picture showing me surrounded by all those men. Even more astonishing, only one participant pointed out the disparity by asking, “Where are the women?”

Claudia, you are one of the co-directors of the Founder Institute in Munich. What is it all about?

After my return from the US I started out as first female Co-Director at Founder Institute Munich. Founder Institute is a pre-seed startup accelerator with roots in Silicon Valley. Candidates come to us with an idea and leave the accelerator after 14 weeks with an incorporated business. It’s a great program, especially for professionals who want to found a company while still being fully employed. First realization: all of our info events were packed with men; roughly 80%.  I see similar numbers amongst the participants of the accelerator. The accelerator exists in Munich since 2013. More than 100 men attended, compared to only 22 women. Of those, 23 men and seven women graduated, four of them in the last semester alone. In Silicon Valley, the numbers look different! The exact data can be found in my article on LinkedIn.. That ratio of male to female founders in Germany is insane.

(Miriam) I would say that also in Germany there are women who are interested in starting their own business. Shortly after the birth of my son – who is now one year old – I joined Google Campus for Parents, a program for mothers or fathers who want to start their own company. Only women took part. But at the end of the day, only one woman actually followed through and founded a company.

What’s holding women back?

(Miriam) There are of course various reasons; personal ones, like the frequently quoted “Confidence Gap”, but also structural ones, such as access to funding. These disadvantages do not only affect female founders, but women in their professional lives in general. What really shocked me the other day were some figures from the “Wage Penalty for Mothers” in The Economist. Germany does very poorly in an international comparison: even after ten years, working mothers are still 60% below the salary level before birth. In Sweden and Denmark the figure is 20%, in the USA 40%. This is, of course, due to the widespread part-time model in Germany.  

“When I signed my son up for day care, I was told, ‘You won’t leave your child here at only six months! You can’t do that!” (Miriam Jansche)

What was that like in the USA?

(Miriam) In San Francisco, that was actually quite different. Most of the young mothers I know returned to the office full-time after a relatively short time of maternity leave – between 3 and 6 months. In contrast to France or the Netherlands where that is similar, there is not even a good infrastructure, everyone gets a nanny. In San Francisco, one would not be declared a ‘Rabenmutter’, meaning a mother abandoning or neglecting her child. Here in Germany, on the other hand, women generally stay at home for at least a year. When I signed my son up for day care, I was told, ‘You won’t leave your child here at only six months! You can’t do that!” I found that rather rude. Of course, how long you stay home with your child is a very personal decision and each model has its merits. At the same time, this results in major disadvantages for women in the labor market – companies are reluctant to hire young women around 30. They could get pregnant. In the USA, on the other hand, this isn’t an issue.

Why is it that it is handled differently in the USA?

(Claudia) An important reason is the high financial pressure in San Francisco. It’s currently the most expensive city in the US; if you want to afford a life with house and family, you need two top salaries. A second “part-time salary”, as often seen in Germany, simply won’t be enough. 

(Miriam) In addition, many also have to pay back their student loans.

(Claudia) To sum it up: it’s great to have this amazing social security system in Germany, but it can be paralyzing.

“For me, the confidence gap is crucial. Women are less self-confident. Or let me rephrase it: they are more realistic in assessing themselves and situations.“ (Claudia Schaller)

Where do you have to start to change that?

(Claudia) The key question for me is “what do women wrong” – in quotation marks – that they lack so behind? What is their own responsibility besides social and cultural constraints? For me, the confidence gap is crucial. Women are less self-confident. Or let me rephrase it: they are more realistic in assessing themselves and situations. I find that a really positive trait but in comparison to men it can come across as insecure or hesitant. Men even tend to overestimate themselves, a phenomenon called “Honest Overconfidence” as showed in studies. This slows women down. My wish for women, including myself, is to feel and say more often “Hey, I can do everything! I’ll find a way.”

(Miriam) It also depends on how differently men and women are viewed. There is this famous Howard/Heidi study by Columbia University: one and the same curriculum vitae (namely that of a real existing, successful venture capital manager) is evaluated completely differently depending on whether the test persons assume that it is Howard or Heidi. The man, Howard, is considered a nice colleague and great guy. The woman, Heidi, is perceived as unappealing, selfish, and over-ambitious. That’s interesting, but there’s something else to it: how do you manage to radiate authority as a woman and still come across as likeable? The fact that, as a woman, you even have to consider how you’ll be perceived in this regard, is a problem.

(Claudia) The comparison between Steve Jobs and Richard Branson is fascinating. Two completely different personalities resulting in two different leadership styles. Both led to huge success. I hardly believe Steve Jobs had to justify why he’s authoritarian and tough. Or Richard Branson for being empathetic and nice. Women, on the other hand, are quickly boxed in. I wish they could just lead the way they are; some tough, some soft and everything in between.

Recently, LinkedIn had a heated discussion about whether Female Empowerment is needed at all, or whether it’s a small-scale, or even counterproductive, approach because it conveys a position of weakness. How do you see it? Do we still need role models? 

(Claudia) Role models are a key – at least for me. After all, we learn from each other and inspire each other. A friend of mine from San Francisco is a great example. VP in a gaming firm, two children, husband, house, and Founder of a successful startup. When I see someone like her, I think: “Julia made it. Why shouldn’t I?”

But there are also women for whom this is rather daunting…

(Miriam) I think it’s so important to know such women and see them in action. In San Francisco, for example, I was able to meet a number of such super-women: one, for example, founded her own fund that angel invests exclusively in female entrepreneurs; another, a platform to connect women based on similar interests and career goals. This drive and optimism can be incredibly motivating and inspiring.

(Claudia) And that’s exactly why we will launch Changemaker Chats here in Munich in November. We wanna connect women with such ‘role models’ and give them a platform where they can have honest conversations about success and failure. And where they can connect and help each other.  

What about the famous ‘American spirit’? 

(Claudia) I would rather say – California spirit.

(Miriam) Absolutely! When you get up and the sky is blue, you can’t help but be in a good mood and optimistic no matter what the day might bring.

(Claudia) Exactly; sounds trivial but San Francisco has the optimal weather for success. Lots of sunshine but never so warm that you’d like to head to the beach. You are motivated and work a lot.

“In Germany younger men interact in a much more relaxed and respectful way with women at the workplace than older men do!” (Claudia Schaller)

What about the ‘boys club’, the accusation that Silicon Valley is a bad macho shop?

(Claudia) The boys club certainly exists, especially among investors. Emily Chang talks about this in her book Brotopia. And misogynistic stories from tech firms surface on a weekly basis. I personally didn’t experience discrimination in San Francisco. I felt usually treated respectfully and as an equal. Even in meetings with way superior Executives, for example at Apple. In Germany, my observation is: younger men interact in a much more relaxed and respectful way with women at the workplace than older men do!

What other factors do you think make Silicon Valley special? 

(Miriam) What’s really unique about Silicon Valley is the so-called ‘pay it forward’ – helping someone without expecting anything in return. When I wanted to leave consulting in 2015 to work for a start-up, this helped me a lot in my job search. I got such good intros from friends, but also from people I barely knew.

(Claudia) That’s definitely a great differentiator. If you need help, someone will most likely offer you “Ok, lets meet for coffee” or “I’ll introduce you to X and Y.” You’re not left alone.

(Miriam) That’s something I took with me from Silicon Valley and I made such intros for a few people here in Germany after my return. They were very grateful, but then immediately countered: So what can I do for you in return? I would even go as far as to say that this culture of ‘paying it forward’ is an important reason why Silicon Valley is so successful – alongside hard factors such as the VCs, tech companies, etc. obviously. And of course the unshakeable optimism and entrepreneurial spirit; it’s much better to fail with your own start-up than to work for a large corporate [a sedate, not very innovative company]. (Laughs) Working for a corporate really puts you at the bottom of the ladder in Silicon Valley. We Germans are still far too proud of our titles and our hierarchical thinking is too pronounced.   

(Claudia) Another important point is that many expats live in San Francisco. Hardly anyone is from this city; friends and colleagues quickly become your family. Strong ties are formed and you help each other. You give and you take. It works surprisingly well. I haven’t experienced this in Germany yet.

(Miriam) And, of course: tolerance! For me personally, the time in San Francisco was really eye-opening! I had studied business administration and then started out in consulting –  there is a certain uniformity – all have similar backgrounds, look similar. And then in San Francisco you suddenly get to talk with people who seem to come from a completely different scene and perhaps you discover you have a lot of things in common which you never would have guessed after the first impression. You talk to them and think, ‘Wow, I just had the most interesting conversation ever.”


Claudia Schaller is a scientist and entrepreneur. She lived in San Francisco until 2017, where she first studied at UCSF and later worked for the innovation consultancy Eight Inc. She currently runs Founder Institute Munich a pre-see startup accelerator and founded InFutura, a consultancy focused on ventures at the intersection of science and entrepreneurship.

Miriam, Claudia and Bettina Bendig, will launch Changemaker Chats in Munich in November.

Miriam Jansche has more than 10 years experience in business development, product management, and management consulting. She moved to San Francisco in 2011 for Detecon, the management consultancy of Deutsche Telekom, where she advised telcos and other multinational companies on innovation and growth strategies. She also helped create partnerships between startups and corporations. When she received her green card in 2015, she decided to work for a San Francisco based technology company and joined Adyen, a leading payment services provider. After six years in San Francisco, she moved back to Germany in 2017.

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