Germany wrestles with female quota in boardrooms

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Germany can boast a wealth of female talent in its government all the way to the top with Chancellor Angela Merkel, but its corporate boardrooms are still almost entirely all-male affairs.

The remarkable lack of woman executives in Europe's biggest economy has sparked a groundswell of protest, with leading news magazine Der Spiegel calling in its current issue for a female quota to redress the imbalance.

"Quotas should be a first-aid measure for a society that has held on to rigid ideas of gender roles for too long," it wrote in an 11-page cover story entitled "Why Germany Needs A Woman Quota - A Manifesto".

"Equality, justice, role models -- the debate about the quota involves everything because it would change this country from the bottom up. The effects would be seen everywhere -- at the family breakfast table just as at the conference tables of the biggest companies."

But perhaps ironically, the idea has failed to win the support of Merkel, who is Germany's first woman chancellor and grew up in the communist east where gender equality in the workplace was more widespread than in the west.

"The chancellor does not support the idea of a binding quota for the moment," her spokesman Steffen Seibert told a regular news conference.

"She is of the opinion that you have to give companies another chance" to rectify the under-representation of women.

However he admitted that voluntary targets introduced in 2001 for companies to boost their ranks of female executives had produced "for the most part modest results".

The proportion of women on executive or supervisory boards at Germany's 200 biggest companies is currently at a dismal 3.2 percent, the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) said in its latest study released last month.

Merkel's cabinet, by contrast, is one-third female but deeply divided on whether a quota is needed to promote fairness, pitting Family Affairs Minister Kristina Schroeder against Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen.

Both women belong to Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union and have attracted attention for their work-life balance.

Schroeder, 33, recently revealed that she is pregnant, in a first in Germany for a sitting minister. Meanwhile von der Leyen, 52, has become a political star while raising seven children.

The 56-year-old Merkel, for her part, is childless.

Von der Leyen has vocally backed a quota of 30 percent, saying industry had failed to hold up its end of the bargain in the 10 years since the voluntary measures were announced.

But Schroeder wants to give them another grace period of two years, "then a legislative obligation will enter into force," she told reporters Thursday.

The pro-business Free Democrats, junior partners in the centre-right ruling coalition, reject a binding quota.

As the debate gained momentum, the government announced it would convene a meeting on the issue in March with personnel chiefs at the 30 largest German companies to come up with a plan of action.

Quota advocates point to France, where 40 percent of seats on supervisory boards at the biggest companies -- with at least 500 staff or more than 50 million euros (68 million dollars) in annual turnover -- must go to women by 2017.

Meanwhile Norway introduced in 2008 a requirement that women hold at least 40 percent of the posts on corporate boards at the country's top 500 firms.

Critics say Germany's resistance to women executives is rooted in a lack of affordable child care but also in cultural factors.

Professor Barbara Vinken of the University of Munich, a leading commentator on women's affairs, says that German women are confronted with more restrictive expectations than their French counterparts, for example.

"German women have internalised the notion that the feminine ideal is a housewife or at most a part-time employee," she told AFP.

She noted that juggling work and children was more difficult in former West Germany, where only one in five children under the age of three is in a creche versus one in two in the former communist east.

The former editor-in-chief of the left-leaning daily Tageszeitung, Bascha Mika, argues in a book to be published this month, "The Cowardice of Women", that female employees must face up to the often uncomfortable task of challenging such norms.

She said that meant demanding equality at home as well as the workplace, for example with childcare.

"I want us women to debate productively with each other about how we can act in areas where we have quite a lot of power, such as the private sphere," Mika told AFP.

"No woman (with a partner) is forced to take care of her kids alone."

Regardless of the causes of the imbalance, most Germans say they back a quota for female managers, with 60 percent of men supporting the idea and 73 percent of women, according to the TNS independent opinion research institute.

© 2011 AFP

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