Women top German politics, absent from boards

Germany's 14-member Cabinet contains five women — with Chancellor Angela Merkel sitting at the top. For a contrast, look at the nation's corporate world: of 182 board members of companies traded on Germany's blue chip stock exchange, only four are women.

Merkel and her labor and family ministers — both women — agree this must change. The question remains, how?

The chancellor told reporters Tuesday she wanted to personally talk to chief executives to press the issue, a week after she rejected a proposal by Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen to set a quota of 30 percent representation for women in board rooms and executive suites.

"I think we need more women in leadership positions," Merkel said, after discussions with Family Minister Kristina Schroeder and corporate representatives on how to make businesses more family friendly.

Already in 2001, German companies agreed to voluntarily promote more women. Since then, very little has changed. A study by the German Economic Institute, or DIW, conducted last month showed that among the nation's top 130 companies women accounted for 2.2 percent of board members.

That puts Germany on par with India and well behind the U.S., where women hold 14 percent of board seats. In top-ranking Sweden, they account for 17 percent.

To better understand the gender gap that many policymakers in the rich world thought had been overcome decades ago, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is investing €1.3 million in a project aimed at compiling data on women in the global economy and overcoming inequalities.

Quotas are one way of forcing change, but they remain a touchy issue, as many women feel their qualifications should speak for themselves.

"I am against a quota for women," said Karin Baeck, who heads a Cologne, Germany-based group called Career Women in Motion. "I think women are qualified enough to land a leadership position on their own."

Yet German women complain that an entrenched old boys network and a business culture where top-level managers are expected to be in the office from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and meetings are often held at 7:00 p.m. or later, are two elements that prevent them getting ahead.

A comment by Deutsche Bank chief executive Josef Ackermann saying the bank had been unable to find a woman who held sufficient qualifications for its executive board, but that he hoped one day it would become "more colorful and more beautiful" sparked outrage.

"If Ackermann wants more color, he should hang pictures on the wall," Silvana Koch-Mehrin, a European member of parliament for Germany's Free Democrats, told the daily Handelsblatt.

Last March, Deutsche Telekom decided that years of trying projects to promote women had not brought the desired change and announced it was setting a goal to have women in 30 percent of all jobs by 2015.

Telekom spokeswoman Anne Wenders believes the enforced quota is helping not only to promote deserving women, but to change the telecom giant's corporate culture.

"Finding qualified women for the top positions is absolutely no problem," Wenders said. She explained the challenge had been getting headhunters and recruiters to realize that they exist.

"Before the quota was in place they would maybe suggest one woman for a position, or say they didn't have any woman with equivalent qualifications. Since we now insist on having 30 percent women in the suggestions, we have been getting really great (female) candidates," she said.

Telekom's experience supports arguments that legislation is the only way to force businesses to make a change that is culturally long overdue and economically sensible.

In January, France passed a law requiring the nation's currently male-dominated companies to have women make up 20 percent of their board of directors by 2014 and 40 percent by 2017. Norway, which passed similar legislation in 2003 has seen the number of women leaders in corporations jump from 6 percent in 2002 to 39 percent eight years later.

Merkel has said she plans to personally lean on the chief executives of Germany's most important companies in hopes of seeing them set voluntary quotas for women. So far automaker Daimler and industrial giant Siemens have joined Telekom with similar initiatives.

But Wenders points out that good will alone is not always enough to bring about the change that is needed.

"We had to admit that after years of trying a bit of this and a bit of that, very little had changed," Wenders said. "At some point you have to look yourself deep in the eyes and admit that its not working."

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Angela Charleton and Angela Doland contributed to this story from Paris.