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Do Germans need a gender quota?

Germany debates requiring a percentage of women on corporate boards.

Germany women corporate boards 02 16 2011Enlarge
Family Minister Kristina Schroeder (left) and Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen (center), pictured here with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, disagree about whether Germany needs quotas to ensure women are promoted to corporate leadership spots. (Wolfgang Kumm/AFP/Getty Images)

BERLIN, Germany — The executive committee of Deutsche Bank is made up of 12 men. But the bank’s CEO, Josef Ackermann, believes there should be more women in executive positions in the notorious “boys’ club” of German business.

The reason he gave to the finance daily Handelsblatt recently? Women would make boardrooms “more colorful and beautiful.”

Within Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet, a fierce debate has broken out over whether male domination of Europe’s biggest economy needs to be shaken up by the imposition of a mandatory 30 percent quota for women in boardroom and executive positions.

The issue has opened up a fissure in Germany, which, despite its generally progressive political positions on many issues, maintains a surprisingly traditional view of gender roles.

The present gender mix is risible: Just 2.2 percent of leadership positions at Germany's top 100 companies are held by women, according to a recent survey by the German Institute for Economic Research. That compares with 15.7 percent of top jobs in Fortune 500 companies in the United States, according to Catalyst, a Wall Street women’s business organization. It is also a stark contrast from the healthy representation of women in Merkel’s cabinet, six of whose 16 members are women. By comparison, more than 90 percent of the top 100 companies have not one single woman on their executive boards.

But the issue has polarized Germans. The division between two prominent female ministers — Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen and Family Minister Kristina Schroeder — is emblematic of their diverse views.

Von der Leyen, 52, has seven children and is the most moderate of conservatives in Germany. She favors a mandatory 30 percent quota. Schroeder, 33, is the youngest woman ever to serve in Germany’s federal cabinet, is pregnant with her first child and has in the past clashed noisily with feminists over her perceived conservative views. She wants any quota to be voluntary.

Merkel herself blocked von der Leyen’s push, declaring through her spokesman that “there will be no legally mandated quota.” She doesn’t need an internal political battle in a year rife with key state elections, even though political insiders say she is personally in favor of a mandated quota, according to news magazine Der Spiegel.

(A lack of women in leadership positions has also provoked debate at European Union headquarters recently.)

The male-dominated business elite, not surprisingly, generally opposes a quota. But many women business leaders are also against the idea.

Marie-Christine Ostermann, for instance, is a 33-year-old managing partner in a large catering and restaurant supply company and also sits on the board of an optical company, as well as leading the Association of Young Entrepreneurs. She opposes a quota because she says companies must be free to choose the best people for top jobs regardless of sex. A better solution she says, is to improve career conditions for women, for example by creating more subsidized childcare and all-day schools. (Most German school children come home around lunchtime.)

“That is an important reason why women are rare in executive positions. But I don’t think that Germany is therefore a boys’ club. There may in individual cases be a macho attitude at executive levels, but my experience is that women are well-accepted in leadership positions,” she said.

Germany also needs to encourage more women to go into engineering and science, which would allow them to climb higher in the manufacturing-driven economy.

That said, Ostermann added that German firms need to improve policies to allow women to juggle work and family, for example by giving them greater flexibility with work hours.

“If conditions improve quickly, I am optimistic that we will soon have a good mix of men and women in top positions,” she said.

But will Germany’s business community act unless it is forced to? Recent experience isn’t encouraging. The government actually struck a deal with industry 10 years ago to promote more women voluntarily. That agreement, Minister von der Leyen points out, has been “an abysmal failure.”

Merkel, when shooting down the quota idea, said business deserved another chance but made it clear she was putting them on notice that, unless progress was made, the government may intervene. But quota advocates aren’t holding their breath.