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Last update on November 07, 2019
Written by Natasha Gunn

French national Frederique Lambers fits into three minority categories in the German business arena: female, black and engineer. Expatica asks her about her experience of living and working in Germany.

A second-generation immigrant born and raised in France, Frederique Lambers (36) has a diverse background. Her mother is French (originally from the French Caribbean) and her father emigrated from the Cameroons in the 1960’s. As well as her mother tongue, French, Lambers speaks fluent German, English and Spanish.

Can you give us some more background about your career path?

I have a Master of Science in Engineering & Material Science from ‘Ecole d’Ingenieur’ in France. Born and raised in France, I have lived in Mexico and the US, where I graduated from Ross School of Business with an MBA.  Although my degree would logically lead me to research and development, quality management or even production, I chose to start my career in the technical sales department in the automotive industry. From 2000 to 2005 I worked in Stuttgart, Germany, for one of the world largest automotive suppliers.

What led you to study engineering?

Mathematics was straightforward for me. You have a problem and you can solve it with logic.A trend in Germany (and the rest of Europe) is for women to hit a ‘glass ceiling’ at mid-management level; why do you think this is and what is being done to change matters?

Men are reluctant to accept women in this circle. I suppose there are still a lot of prejudices regarding what women can really achieve, or simply because the upper management feels more comfortable being in a men-only club.

On the other hand, women do not dare ask to be part of this circle.  After all, how comfortable is it to be the only woman in a conference room with 10 guys who make tasteless comments and who can stay at work late because they can rely on someone else to coordinate the household tasks back home?

One HR manager at a car manufacturer mentioned to me that women HR managers are tougher on women than men in the selection process. I also feel that women’s credibility is questioned more than that their male counterparts.

Is the problem in German companies more about diversity in general rather than gender imbalance?

Yes, I hate to simplify this issue as being ‘men versus women’. I do not like gender war. For me women belong to a minority as well as Germans with an immigrant background. One of the largest immigrant communities is from Turkey. For instance, in the company I worked for, I cannot remember having seen any managers of this origin. By systematically closing the doors to minorities, and women in particular I feel that we are missing opportunities.

At the time I was hired, the HR department was making an effort to recruit more minorities as this company was perceived by graduates as really conservative. They have also developed a career development programme.

As a black woman working as an engineer in Germany you fulfil three minority groups. Have some companies not simply jumped to employ you to fulfil their need for diversity?

I do not have an issue with that as long as they do not expect me to be “nice and shut up”. I want my piece of the cake because I believe in reciprocity. Unfortunately one company I worked for had another understanding of reciprocity. I discussed that with HR during my annual appraisal. I know that the HR person did not get my point, but my boss did, but he was not ready to act. For me it is important to remain consistent with my beliefs. At that time my position was, and still is “I can help you improving your image regarding diversity, but you have to boost my career. If you do not, I’ll quit.”

So you feel that you now have an advantage over non-minorities going for the job?

Not at all! Actually I do not try to take it as an advantage. It is just a trump I could use if needed. If someone wants to recruit me it is because they want me to have a positive impact on the business, period.

I have observed that there are three clusters that people think about:
1)    Engineer + Woman = interesting, good for the quota.
2)    Woman+ Black = hmmm! Does she understand our language? (Once a colleague who did not know me asked this, and, in the same company– at the beginning–employees who had lunch at the cafeteria were pointing at me. I said “Sorry, did I park my spacecraft too near your car?”)
3)    Engineer + Woman + Black = what the hell is going on here! I should have taken a day off!

A lot of companies don’t see the reality of what a multicultural environment can bring to you. “The ‘multicultural model’ failed,” as Merkel said.

Germany has opposed bringing in the board quota system that has worked well in Norway. Do you think this system would work in Germany?

No it will not. What we usually forget is that Norway has created a family friendly work environment, the mentally is different. I read that it is commonly accepted that men leave the office to pick up their offspring at the daycare at 16:00 (which would be considered the middle of the day in Germany). The percentage of men taking parenting leave is a lot higher in Norway than in Germany.

Do you think that German companies will move quick enough to bring in diversity to stop the government having to enforce this through quota regulation?

How could they do that? Not only mentalities from both men and women have to evolve–the typical housewife model is still well entrenched. This requires a fundamental change in German society structure (full day schooling, more daycare for babies). Mentalities do not evolve in three years, and for the rest it costs a lot of money!

Maybe big companies that worked the last decade on increasing the diversity at all the management levels will have the opportunity to react quickly but what about the others…Germany is not only Siemens, Daimler (Daimler recently elected AG Christine Hohman-Dennhardt to their Board of Directors), Telekom and Deutsche Bank.  For the others they will not have enough candidates.  If we bring in the quota system then who will fulfil the posts? There aren’t enough women in the pipeline.

Why do you think Germany lags behind other developed European countries in the realm of diversity in the workplace?

This is a very complex question and as a non-German I would argue the following. In the 50’s, 60’s people worked hard to rebuild their country. I suppose it was commonly accepted to strictly separate the role in the household. Then during the Cold War, East Germany had a structured whereby most of the women worked and the children would go to daycare and in Western Germany this model was considered as being the wrong one. When the wall came down, the Western way prevailed.

You mentioned that your name can be a man’s name in Germany. Has this caused any issues?

At work, when I need to meet someone who does not know me, most of the people look for a man. The same happens in job interviews. I got used to after a while.

As a working mother, how do you find the childcare system in Germany?

I can only compare the German system with that of the French and the US. My son started daycare when he turned six months, in Michigan, US. When we came back to Germany, when he was two years, I could not find a place in a public childcare centre– they exist, but the waiting lists are long.  Daycare in Germany is a neglected area. In the end, we went private which was extremely expensive. There the personnel were both young and open-minded so that they never made side comments. When I toured other facilities, people asked me in a ‘friendly’ way:  ’Do you really need to go back to work?’

Family members, neighbours, colleagues or friends also make similar remarks such as: ’it is better for your child to stay home’, or ‘it is crucial for the child’s development that he stays with his mom the first three years.’ I don’t tend to pay attention to those comments because I have another culture in which it is your personal decision that counts and I do not feel that I have to justify my choices. I usually argue that I do not fully understand this side of the German culture, which normally puts an end to the discussion.

Most of the younger generation grew up in the same framework and social pressure keeps it the same. Women need to decide what is best for themselves.  I am a woman, a wife, and a mother. It is important to deal with these three parts. French intellectual Elizabeth Badinter, author of ‘In defence of the imperfect mother’, said in an interview:  “Professional life is ever harder, ever more stressful and unattractive, and on the other hand, there is an accumulation of new moral duties weighing on women.”

To be satisfied in life I need to do my work. It is nice to on a business trip and not to be at home for a few days. At least I can sleep!

Would you describe yourself as a feminist?

No, I am not a feminist; I am a person who refuses to be discriminated against just because of her gender. I (maybe wrongly) associate feminism with activism.

Do you think that women in Germany can help the state of affairs by networking more?

Yes, In comparison with the US, German women do not seem to perceive the added value of networking.