Germany's Glass Ceiling

  • Share
  • Read Later
Tatjana Breloh was a statistical rarity in Germany: a woman who had climbed management ranks to reach the top of her profession. Involved in the client side of the advertising business, she had risen to the position of managing director of a Düsseldorf-based ad agency. But in June 1997, the 40-year-old Breloh was suddenly fired. Her dismissal came a week after receiving a $25,000 bonus for good work--and three days after informing the company that she was going to become a mother. "It was simple," she recalls. "I got pregnant and I got fired."

Breloh's case is now wending its way through the German courts. Her employer, the Euro RSCG agency, has denied firing her because of her pregnancy and said it was the result of a company reorganization. But what is beyond dispute is Breloh is part of a legion of women who feel that German business routinely discriminates against them in management jobs, a barrier to upward mobility branded the glass ceiling by female executives.

Their plight gained a potentially powerful advocate last month when Angela Merkel was unanimously nominated to head the Christian Democratic Union, the first woman to lead one of Germany's mainstream political parties.

German women need all the help they can get. Last year women held just 9.2% of management jobs in Germany, according to Hoppenstedt, an economic publisher. In contrast, the International Labor Organization notes that in the U.S. the number is 43%, in the U.K. 33%, and even in neighboring Switzerland the number is 28%. "Germany is like a developing country still, it's one of the worst examples," says Ursula Engelen-Kefer, deputy chairwoman of the German Trade Union Association.

A frequently cited explanation for Germany's poor record on women in management is the antiquated state school system. "The problem is that you are not able to combine a job with a family," says Elizabeth Müller, a Cologne lawyer who is a member of the board of the German Women Lawyers Association. "In Spain and France, the school system is much more designed with working mothers in mind," she says.

But that is just part of the problem. Sonja Bischoff, a researcher at the University for Economy and Politics in Hamburg, says that 50% of women executives in Germany have children, but only 6% complain about the child care problems. The real cause for complaint, she says, is simple prejudice. "More and more women are getting entry-level management jobs, but when they want to move higher, they feel discrimination, and it's real."

According to Bischoff, evidence for this discrimination can be found in the salaries of executives. Among male executives in the third tier of management from the top, Bischoff found that 25% had incomes in excess of $100,000 a year while none had salaries below $40,000. When women in the same category of jobs were surveyed, however, 30% had salaries below $40,000 and none had salaries above $100,000. For this reason, Bischoff said, young women felt more comfortable becoming entrepreneurs rather than joining a large, established firm. "Women entrepreneurs are very, very successful in Germany but it's not widely known," Bischoff says.

Corporate Germany is slowly catching on to the problem. A number of large corporations, especially those engaged in international trade, have started training programs to help women join management. Volkswagen, for example, has a program to train 18 women a year. The women, who are primarily engineers already employed by the company, get a year of coaching as preparation for entry-level management jobs.

Lufthansa, the German airline, has joined with seven other major corporations, including Commerzbank, Robert Bosch and Deutsche Telekom, to offer a so-called cross-mentoring system in which women in one company offer advice to women managers in another firm. It's an effort to help women develop the kind of "old boy network" that allows male managers to successfully climb the corporate ladder.

Linda Wirth, a researcher with the ILO in Geneva, says that one reason that countries like the U.S. and Canada have such high numbers of women in management is that companies fear lawsuits by whole groups of women who feel discriminated against. But class action lawsuits are not permitted in the German legal system. One breakthrough that may help German women, though, is a trove of decisions coming out of the European Union in Brussels on discrimination in the workplace. One finding, for example, puts the onus on the employer to prove it did not discriminate when a pregnant woman is fired. That could strengthen the hand of women like Breloh, the Düsseldorf ad executive who, since her firing, has set up her own agency with some of her former clients. As her case illustrates, if companies don't adapt to changing times, they may find that their women managers have become their toughest competitors.