In Germany, a Quota for Female Managers

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The logo of the German telecoms provider Deutsche Telekom at the company's headquarters in Bonn.

Germany's boardrooms have long been a cherished male preserve. But that's about to change at one of the country's biggest companies, Deutsche Telekom, which has just unveiled a radical new plan to fast-track more women into management roles. By 2015, the company has mandated that 30% of its middle and upper management positions be filled by women — the first gender quota to be implemented at one of Germany's top 30 DAX-listed companies. Anne Wenders, a Deutsche Telekom spokesperson, says this is not a "tokenistic gesture aimed at political correctness," but a new way of thinking that could become a model for other German companies. "This is a revolution and it will change the way our company works," she says.

Germany lags far behind other Western countries when it comes to gender equality in the workplace and promoting women to top positions. In a survey of 600 global companies conducted by the World Economic Forum earlier this month, Germany ranked 14th out of 20 countries in terms of the percentage of women employed. The study found that only 33% of employees at the German companies surveyed are women, compared with 52% at the American companies in the poll and 48% at the Spanish firms. Moreover, only 6% of chief executives in Germany are women, compared with 12% in Norway. And just one of Germany's DAX-listed companies has a woman on its board: Siemens, which appointed Barbara Kux to its eight-person executive committee in 2008.

These statistics are unacceptable to many German women, who applaud Deutsche Telekom's attempts to level the playing field. But the initiative doesn't mean the telecom giant has gone soft and discovered feminism — the company says the move just makes good business sense. Women comprise around 60% of all business graduates from German universities today and the company says it can't afford to miss out on this pool of talent. On top of that, Deutsche Telekom cites recent studies pointing to the profitability of companies that have women managers. "Taking on more women in management positions is not about the enforcement of misconstrued egalitarianism," Chief Executive René Obermann said in a statement. "Having more women at the top will simply help us operate better."

Whatever the company's motivations, the quota is still an audacious move for Europe's biggest telecom group — part of recent efforts to shake off its old-fashioned image and revamp its operations for the 21st century. Women currently only occupy 12% of the management positions at Deutsche Telekom offices in Germany — and none of the positions on the eight-member executive committee. In order to recruit more women managers, the company says it plans to introduce more flexible working hours and part-time positions, as well as expand its parental leave schemes and child-care services. It has also implemented a new "stay in contact" program, which helps women managers keep in touch with the office while on maternity leave.

Deutsche Telekom's new policy is bound to send shockwaves through Germany's business community, which has thus far resisted calls for boardroom quotas. "We support the desire in society to have more women in leadership roles," says Werner Schnappauf, the head of Germany's Industry Federation, an umbrella organization of industrial companies and industry-related service providers. But he adds that instituting "rigid legal requirements, like a quota, are not a suitable method." The move is also likely to anger more than a few people at Deutsche Telekom, Wenders says. "Some male employees may worry that they'll have a difficult time now getting to the top," she explains. The quota has gone down well, however, with union members. "It's never too late," says Jan Jurczyk, a spokesman for Germany's public sector union, Verdi. "German companies still have a lot of catching up to do with their European counterparts." He hopes Deutsche Telekom will set an example for other companies where women are "still implicitly shut out of top jobs."

Gender quotas are new to Germany but they've been implemented elsewhere. After a heated debate, Norway passed a controversial law in 2003 requiring that 40% of all board members of publicly listed companies had to be women. The measure paid off: company boards went from just 7% female in 2003 to 40% in January 2008. Spain, the Netherlands and France are now planning similar laws. Sweden doesn't have a quota system, but it has introduced other measures to help women combine work and family life, such as tax cuts for household and child-care services and incentives for more fathers to take parental leave to care for children. The policies have helped Swedish women get ahead: 19% of executive board positions and nearly half of all board seats in state-owned companies are now held by women.

Only time will tell if Deutsche Telekom's quota will inspire other companies to enact similar policies — or push the government to implement more family friendly laws to help women break through the glass ceiling. Until then, Germany does have at least one high-powered woman calling the shots — the one they call Chancellor.