As a student, Family Minister Kristine Schröder (on the left) wrote that she never wanted to become a feminist, she does not agree the statement by Simone de Beauvoir: “One is not born a woman, one becomes one,” and she caused controversy, when first elected as the women responsible for women’s issues, by saying that women simply needed to get tougher when it came to the gender pay gap.
It is interesting therefore, that Kristina Schröder, who has served as Germany’s Federal Minister of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, since November 2009 and is a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, is one of the key players defending women’s interests in the current debate on whether to introduce a gender quota in Germany.
A study, recently released by the German Institute for Economic Research, has revealed that Germany falls behind much of Europe in terms of corporate equal opportunities. It shows that only 2.2% of the executive board members of the top one hundred companies listed on the German Stock Exchange (DAX 100), are women, and that not one of the DAX 100 has a female CEO. The study has sparked fierce debate in German politics and prompted the government to host talks with companies on the DAX 30 to find a solution to the problem.
The two key political players in the debate are Schröder, 33, who has long held the view that quotas always amount to a failure of politics and her fellow Cabinet Minister and predecessor, Ursula von der Leyen, 52, who has been campaigning to introduce a gender quota since the beginning of 2011. Von der Leyen, who served as Family minister from 2005-2009 and has served as the Minister for Labour and Social Affairs since 2009, has been inspired by the example of France.
She has put forward the proposal that there should be a 30% legally mandated gender quota for men and women on the executive and advisory boards of primarily publically traded companies. The quota would be sanctioned, meaning that if companies didn’t meet the gender quota during elections, board member decisions would still be valid, but the vote would not and board members would not get paid. This she says, would not harm the company but would hurt the advisory boards that resist installing female members.
Schröder on the other hand has taken a much lighter approach, and said that while she considers quotas a supporting crutch for the most part, they are sometimes necessary. She has gone for the middle ground in proposing a voluntary, flexible quota that each company would set for themselves. During talks, DAX 30 companies pledged to publish quotas for women at different hierarchy levels, including executive boards by the end of the year. Schröder said that if firms did not triple the number of female top executives by 2013, the government would set targets. She believes that published targets, will put companies under public pressure and her policy is supported by Angela Merkel.
What this will mean in practice, however, remains to be seen. In 2001 a voluntary agreement between industry and the federal government was signed, when an equal opportunity law for the private sector failed due to the resistance of the employers’ association. Its implementation, however, has been slow and unsatisfactory. The voluntary agreement is widely regarded a disaster, and Von der Leyen, although a supporter of the agreement whilst serving as Family Minister, now describes it as an abysmal failure, which has done nothing to improve the situation. Indeed many women in business agree with her saying that, although they themselves were previously skeptical of introducing a gender quota, there is now no other choice. However, it seems at least for the next two years, that voluntary quotas will remain preferred government policy.
Given that voluntary quotas have proven ineffective in the past, it is hard to believe that they will work now, although the threat of government intervention in the near future may act as a catalyst. Gender quotas are controversial and raise many questions about the role that government should play in business, but it is a debate, which is going on throughout Europe. A draft resolution approved by the European Parliament Women’s Rights Committee published in May, says that EU legislation is needed to boost the number of women in decision-making positions to 30% by 2015 and to 40% by 2020. It could be that Germany’s corporate hand is eventually forced by EU legislation, or that the threat from federal government is persuasive enough to convince listed companies to change their ways, but either way, it seems, things could be about to change and that Schröder may have found a way put Goliath into checkmate.
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More in depth: Spiegel International