March 12, 2015

Ulrike Detmers talks female manager quotas

Professor Dr. Ulrike Detmers, Mestemacher Group (photo: Randi Blomberg)
Professor Ulrike Detmers: "Prejudices and relics from the old men's club days are the biggest barrier to encouraging female management talent"
More than a century after the suffragettes, the world clearly still has a long way to go when it comes to creating a level playing field for women.

This goes far beyond the stubborn persistence of sexual stereotypes and harassment at the workplace. Last Sunday, International Women's Day reminded an often indifferent planet of, for instance, female factory hands in Bangladesh who strive for a liveable wage and safer work conditions.

Even in the West, women generally still do not earn the same wages as men. Although pay gaps have been narrowing over recent years, the rate of change has been painfully slow. In fact, it has been computed that, if remuneration improvements continue at their present snail's pace, a girl born today would have to live to 88 in order to experience full equality.

Although an Angela Merkel or a Christine Lagarde have made it to the top against the odds, women still tend to abound in honourable professions, such as nursing, which require immense devotion for little recompense. Whether in investment banking or commodities trading, male domains are nearly always to be found where the financial goodies lie.

Retailing, in particular, still retains its red-neck image. But even in the more rarefied world of fmcg, many senior women struggle to break through the glass ceiling. So most C-suites remain testosterone-drenched boys' clubs.

Schwesig sees it through

In view of this macho scenario, one is even obliged to welcome new feminist legislation passed by the German Federal Government last Friday which still leaves male top managers with a crushing boardroom majority of more than two-thirds.

Manuela Schwesig, Minister of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women & Youth, is, however, surely to be praised. She has finally managed to box through a law whereby large German Plcs will be obliged to maintain a lady quota of 30 per cent on their Supervisory Boards as from 2016.

The new regulation will essentially apply to around 100 big companies, including Metro Group. A further c. 3,500 medium-sized firms are also required to set themselves voluntary quotas.

One of the women who have helped to create a climate of informed opinion where such legislation could finally come about is Professor Ulrike Detmers. The management board member and partner of "lifestyle bakery" Mestemacher Group is both a successful businesswoman and a renowned feminist.

Like no other in the German trade, Detmers has fought against gender discrimination and for corporate diversity on a whole range of issues affecting the workplace. Who then better to ask for a view of the new law and its ramifications?

"Talented women create prosperity and growth"


Professor Detmers, will the new law on female Supervisory Board quotas really make it easier for women wanting to make a career in retailing & the fmcg industry?

Yes, I base my optimism on what happened when the state liberalised economic activity at the beginning of the 19th century. This made it possible to found companies independently of guild "brotherhoods". The introduction of a legally-fixed female quota will enable women to concentrate fully on successful careers in top positions.

Since the beginning of 2000, women have been waiting patiently for the business world to meet its voluntary obligations, but nothing has happened.

Incidentally, it was exactly the same with the guild "brotherhoods". They also promised to allow companies to establish themselves without putting pressure on them to become guild members, but they failed to deliver on that promise.

But isn't today's 30 per cent quota just a "mini-reform"?

Of course it would have been more effective had the law stipulated a 40-per-cent share in higher and top management, as we do at Mestemacher Group. But at least the 30-per-cent level will put an end to women as an absolute minority on Boards, which was hardly a good basis for them to work on.

You have been active for years in encouraging female management talent. What are the biggest practical barriers facing women today?

Prejudices and relics from the old men's club days when men stuck together in order to preserve their status as sole breadwinner. Seen historically, women were never really in competition with men anyway, as wives were not allowed to work without their husband's permission. German women have only been allowed to decide whether they want to work since the mid-1970's.

Why do you think international studies give Germany and Japan the lowest marks when it comes to the number of women in senior management and their chances of getting on there?

The view of women prevalent during the national-socialist era dominated both countries for a long time.

Around 3,500 medium-sized companies will be allowed to set their own gender quotas. Won't they merely apply the lowest possible one?

Perhaps that will be the case, but it wouldn't be wise because talented women create growth and prosperity. Germany has a lack of good executives. This gap can be filled extremely well by the very highly-qualified women we have.

Family Affairs Minister Manuela Schwesig wants to fight differences in pay between men and women by introducing a new law which, among other things, will oblige companies to report on remuneration levels. Do you support her?

Women should be paid according to their performance because they deserve to be. Fair pay would also reduce poverty in old age as well as help to insulate against such risks as divorce. Alimony reforms, for example, often mean an end to marriage as a housewife. Today, women can no longer rely on being supported by their partners for the rest of their life.

It was International Women's Day on Sunday. Euro-MP Viviane Reding claimed that there can be no real equality as long as we still celebrate the event. Do you agree?

German Law Minister Heiko Maas has also remarked: "We want the women's quota in order to make the women's quota superfluous." I would agree with both statements. That said, I think that the women's quota will become superfluous far more quickly than International Women's Day. After all, there are still an incredible number of countries where women are worth nothing at all.


Related article in German: Interview by Mike Dawson in Lebensmittel Zeitung, no. 11, 13.03.2013



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Comments for this article are closed.

  1. Mark James
    Created 13 March, 2015 09:44 | Permanent link

    Women in Nation Building

    Women generally are now making it to the top even though many still want to suppress them. I believe women are able to do what men can do too.

  2. Ruth Raphel
    Created 13 March, 2015 14:52 | Permanent link

    New Opportunity for German Women to Succeed in Business

    Great up-to-date article for your readers on this new quota to help women succeed in business. There is so much women can add to the growth of Germany when they can be part of a partnership society between men and women.

    In my own family, my son and daughter-in-law run an independent publishing business. My son heads the acquisition department and my daughter-in-law the editing. It has made their marriage a real partnership. My two daughters are married to men who encouraged them in their careers, which made their family life full and happy.

    Congratulations to Manuela Schwesig for the new quota and to you, Mike, for your report.

    Ruth Raphel

  3. Mrs Audrey Brown
    Created 13 March, 2015 15:51 | Permanent link

    Women's "Suffer"age

    This delightful lady speaks for the likes of myself, and it is good to know that we are being heard at last. In particular, the comment "Women should be paid according to their performance because they deserve to be. Fair pay would also reduce poverty in old age" struck home for me.

    As a retired woman, I can only praise the day that in my time I was a serial entrepreneur! Had I left my personal finances to the "tender mercies" of a male-run State, I would be in the situation of many of my friends who were in employment during the majority of their working life, but who never received a fair pension in proportion to men because it was assumed that any husband would make up the deficit. What a joke!

    When a young businesswoman in the 1960s on an initially very low budget, I was once even refused a hire purchase contract for my eldest daughter’s cot, even though I had established that it would come out of my State Children’s Allowance. I was simply told to find a man to sign it for me. How insulting!

    Obviously, I recognise that this little anecdote will no longer apply to present circumstances, but I still believe that women have a very long way to go to improve their lot. Even today, when I am asked to head committees, if there is a meeting where both sexes debate something, I find that you have to go "softly" in order not to provoke the male sex. This goes so far that one even has to pretend not to know so much. Whereas men can generally behave as they like, women are not expected to have strong passions on whatever project is in question.

    Have things really changed? I doubt it. For instance, my youngest daughter is a qualified physiotherapist and has just completed a second degree to become a GP. During her last year of training a male Specialist asked her: "Why is a pretty lady like you not married and busy with babies?" It happens that she is indeed extremely pretty, but has had a few disastrous love affairs and been broken-hearted. Imagine how she feels about such comments. So there's women's lib for you in this bright, modern age!

    I could go on and on, I close merely with an expression of admiration for many of the talented young girls who are trying to make their way today and sincerely hope that they will not have to experience what I have done.

  4. Catriona Macpherson
    Created 20 March, 2015 08:33 | Permanent link

    Need for Affordable Childcare

    I think until there is better and more affordable childcare in Germany, women are always going to be playing on the back foot in the job market. Many employers are wary of taking on women with children because they're seen to be unreliable and liable to leave work at a moment's notice if their child is sick, sent home from school etc...

  5. Linda Eatherton
    Created 20 March, 2015 15:06 | Permanent link

    Let's keep changing...for good

    Thank you, Mike, for helping to raise awareness and understanding for this important business issue. Equality of opportunity and recognition is a right all people are born with. Only institutions, organizations and governments can take it away. And, it can only be taken, if we allow it.

    In the 1960's women recognized that they not only have a rightful place in business, but they also have a responsible place in being an equal provider to their families. Many changes opened doors and allowed women to flood into businesses. We won that battle but perhaps forgot the war was much bigger.

    Our work, our contributions and our unique intellect brings diversity, texture and quality to businesses and business decisions. For that we must be equally recognized and compensated. That expectation is more than an assumption...it is a requirement to ensure full participation and engagement.

    As a female who has worked in the food industry for over 30 years, it has always stunned me that the industry that heavily relies on female buyership, too often fails to rely on female leadership to achieve that goal. Changes are good. Let's keep changing.

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