men sitting on sofa
Foto von Kaleidico
Nowadays, more and more enterprises try to get more women into leading positions. Why is that useful for a company?

It is not just useful. It is inevitable and strategic. We live in the 21st century where 60 percent of university graduates are women. You can’t ignore or underuse this percentage of the talent pool, particularly in Western Europe, where the population is already shrinking.. So it’s slightly suicidal not to be taking this issue into central account. Not to mention that women make 80 percent of consumer goods purchasing decisions. If you are going to ignore 60 percent of the talent and 80 percent of consumers, your business is not going to have a healthy future. So it is no big surprise that companies are picking up this issue. What’s surprising perhaps is that they have waited so long.

Event Note

HRM Expo 2010, Cologne


of Avivah Wittenberg-Cox


Wednesday, 13 October 2010,

2.30 – 3.30pm, keynote forum,

Subsequent public interview

What happens in a company when more women get into leading positions? Do you believe in a special female leadership style?

We don’t really know yet if there is a difference between male and female leadership styles. But there are many differences between men and women and I would not see why there would not be also differences in leadership style. In fact I hope that women will bring something new to the table. We know from the existing research that gender balance brings better teams, better innovation, and improved profitability. But talking about a female leadership style risks creating silly stereotyping, because it is too early to say – give me ten more years.

In Germany, Deutsche Telekom is the first Dax 30 company to introduce a women’s quota. Do you think that’s a good instrument for a better gender balance?

Deutsche Telekom says, 30 percent of their leadership positions should be for women – and of course you can discuss: “Why 30 percent?” There are 60 percent of women graduating from university. Is 30 percent actually a good number? Does it reflect the talents they are getting? In any case companies are managed by numbers, so if you don’t set numbers, you don’t get results. But I would not have called it a ‘women’s’ quota but rather a ‘gender balance’ quota. Instead of legislating 30 percent women at all level they should legislate 30 percent minimum of either gender at all levels in all functions. I would make it gender neutral. It is more acceptable to men and women, and will protect men in the future...

But generally speaking, you support quotas?

I think it’s much better that companies set themselves objectives – as Deutsche Telekom has – than the government set them, which is about to happen in many countries. The EU is considering a quota of 20 percent for the boardroom level. I don’t think boards are the crucial issue, though. Executive committees are crucial better reflection of what the company is actually doing on gender balance. It is ironic if governments set quotas just at a time when the economic case for gender balance has never been so obvioius. It also would help if the governments imposing quotas on the private sector would themselves be practicing what they preach.

Why are executive committees crucial? It is much easier to appoint a woman onto a corporate board than it is to groom a woman for power and have her progress through the traditional, internal route to the Executive Committee. Boards are oversight bodies. They do not actually run companies. So getting more gender balance at board level does not have a very direct impact on the gender balance of the organization as a whole. What would you suggest – how high should the quota be for the executive committee?

I think this has to be debated in each company: What is the number in our sector regarding the kinds of people we are recruiting from the university? What does our client base look like – to which extent is it male or female? Gender balance is not necessarily parity. It is the kind of balance that would be relevant to your business.

A quota is just one instrument for a better gender balance. Which other instruments do you recommend?

A quota forces managers to learn how to attract, retain and develop women as well as men. And that requires some adaptation of company’s processes, management styles and cultures. In imposing the kind of objectives that Deutsche Telekom has, they will learn what is required to reach those numbers. And it requires changes inside the companies, most of which have to do with how managers manage.

Can you give us an example?

Most companies identify their next generation of leaders between the ages of 30 and 35. This is not meant to discriminate against women. But they could not choose a worse period than that, when most female university graduates who have already started their careers and want to get children are beginning with family planning. Systemic policies like these are often unconscious until companies try to develop more women. Then they realize that their policies were designed in the 20th century for men with wives at home who take care of life.

What about the sectors with many female customers – are they better in addressing women?

Not really. The way the automotive industry communicates with women, for example, leaves a lot to be desired. Women today are making about 60 percent of car purchasing decisions. But how many car companies have actually adapted their customer research, product development and relationship management to the fact that their acquirers are now to a majority women instead of men? It is unbelievable to what extend they ignore the majority of their customers. Once they connect better with their customers, they will gain a lot of market share. And it is easier to do that if you have enough women in the company running some things and having some decision making influence.

Your clients probably want to have more women in charge. What are the typical requests they have?

The typical request is: “We know why we have to do this”, (which they don’t generally), “we just don’t understand how.”

Why do you think they do not know why this is necessary?

Because they feel a growing pressure to do something about the fact that their leadership teams are all male. But they do not recognize that they not only should be interested in this but that it is a large business issue on their horizon. They think it is good for the image, the employer branding or helps to solve some recruitment problems. For them it is a small HR issue, when it is rather a large business topic.

So what are the first steps when you start working with them?

The first step is usually to get this issue to the executive committees to spend a focused day on the topic, discussing: How important do they think it is? How relevant is it to their business and what are they ready to do about it? How willing are they to invest themselves, because it does take direct involvement from the leaders. We argue against delegating this to some kind of diversity committee. If companies want a gender balance it’s up to the leaders to make it happen.

Are mentoring programs useful to establish a gender balance on different hierarchical levels?

Companies that have been trying to work on this topic over the last 20 years mainly pursued what we call “fix the women”-strategies. They asked: “What is the matter with these poor ladies that they aren’t making it to the top? Let’s help them. Let us give them some leadership training and some mentoring and help them along the road.” In 2010 it is time to flip that approach. Instead it is important to ask, “What is the matter with our company, if we can’t attract, retain and develop the majority of the talents in our country and respond to the majority of the consumers nor markets?” And if you ask this question, it is actually the managers who have to be fixed, not the women. The challenge is developing managers who are skilled in what we call “bilingual management”. Every manager – male or female – needs to be able to understand, develop, train, retain and promote men and women equally. That kind of bilingualism is not yet present in organisations. Instead companies are focused on women as if they were lacking something. So I am not sure that mentoring programs for women are good instruments. Organisations can do mentoring programs, but if they do this it should be fifty-fifty male and female.

Another example for the different treatment of men and women is compensation. In comparison to men, women still get lower wages. Is that a cause of the lacking gender balance or a consequence?

It is more of a consequence. When women and men share leadership in organisations there will be no more wage gaps between them. Wage gaps for work of equal value are just a proof that a company is not a well run.

A difficulty for companies on their way to a gender balanced organisation may also be women’s lacking the will to get into power. Or is that just a stereotype?

No, I agree. Women don’t want to get into power. But who cares? Are we talking about what women want or what companies need? And my argument is: Companies need gender balance. It has been proven to be better for the bottom line, for consumers and for talent. So if women don’t want to get into power in organisations as they are today, companies have to shift towards a situation where women want this kind of career. And my second question on that topic: Who has ever proven that only people that want power are best able to exercise it? Companies only promote people who want to be promoted. And women – it is true on a whole – want to be recognized, but are not necessarily pushing for promotion. Does that mean they are not able to be promoted? No. We know a lot of companies that have promoted them anyway and then they have done very well. Managers have to learn to promote people who are not asking, demanding and pushing to be promoted, even though they are not used to that intellectually.

Interview: Bettina Geuenich and Stefanie Hornung

Reading Tips

How Women Mean Business: A Step by Step Guide to Profiting from Gender Balanced Business.

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, John Wiley & Sons 2010.

Why Women Mean Business: Understanding the Emergence of our next Economic Revolution.

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Alison Maitland, John Wiley & Sons 2009.