Equality Gender Policy and Women’s Quota in Germany

Equal opportunities for careers - a reality in German companies?
Equal opportunities for careers - a reality in German companies? | Photo (detail): © dpa

Sociological studies in recent years have shown that women are often better in school and study with more determination and focus. After women enter into a profession, however, the superiority of the female sex in education and careers comes to an end. A Europe-wide women’s quota for executive boards is intended to change this.

The glass ceiling

When it comes to positions in the upper echelons, women are quantitatively under-represented. In this respect, more than 25 years of gender equality policies in Europe have changed nothing. In 1997 the Amsterdam Treaty recorded that gender mainstreaming must be the mandatory guideline for all member states of the EU. Gender mainstreaming, a political strategy that aims at promoting the equality of men and women at all decision-making levels, has been enshrined since 1999 in the programme of the German government. Yet at the executive level in Germany women are practically non-existent. Are there not enough qualified women, or is it because of the incompatibility of child and career? Questions that can be as little answered as that about whether a quota system will bring a change at top levels or result in new discrimination.

In the end, this is a problem that affects all affirmative action. The term originated in the 1960s in the United States and refers to institutional measures aimed at ending any discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation and preventing further discrimination. In Germany, affirmative action is usually translated as “positive discrimination”, and this suggests the complexity of such measures. “Positive discrimination” for one person can bring with it “negative discrimination” against another. Thus the quota system for women, as a possible affirmative action measure, is likewise an object of controversy.

Proposal from Brussels

This debate is not new. Throughout the EU there are legal regulations on questions of equality and discrimination; only their practical implementation is lacking. Brussels therefore wants to get serious. In November 2012 the European Commission adopted the proposal of EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding for a law that would regulate a women’s quota for European listed companies. Beginning in 2020, 5.000 listed companies must fill two of five board positions with women. When qualifications are equal, the female applicant is to have preference, else the company faces sanctions. What “equal qualifications” means is not stipulated by the bill.

Pro quota and contra quota

Nobody likes the quota. Even Viviane Reding avoids calling herself its “fan” and instead says she is an advocate of the expected results. Pro Quota Media, the German association that champions a 30 percent women’s quota in leadership positions in the media industry by 2017, speaks of the “bitch we need”.

Much speaks against the quota system: it limits the freedom to conduct a business, gender becomes the decisive criterion in hiring for top positions, and, finally, who likes being a quota woman? If the quota woman is so unpopular, why not do without her? Because the arguments in favour of a quota are equally convincing: assuming the same talent and education, it is incomprehensible why women are barely represented in boards of directors and managers. Moreover, companies with mixed managements enjoy a better working environment and are regarded as economically more successful, as, for example, has been shown by the recent study Mixed Leadership of the auditing form Ernst & Young.

And then there are the positive examples of quota systems such as those in Africa. For about 50 years there have been quotas in Africa that facilitate women’s access to political mandates. According to one study conducted in 2012 by GIGA (German Institute of Global and Area Studies), 23 of 49 countries on the continent currently make use of this instrument to enforce equality – with success. If in 1960 women made up barely one percent of political representatives, 50 years later the average proportion of women in parliaments came to 20 percent. In Kenya, for example, a legal quota reserves six seats in the parliament for women plus a voluntary quota at the party level. A constitutional amendment in 2010 prescribes that a maximum of two thirds of elected MPs in Kenya may be of the same sex.

Law or self-imposed commitment?

Do companies and society need the help of the state in matters of equality? It is difficult to say. Ultimately, every quota, whether legally prescribed or self-imposed, is an indictment. Like all forms of “positive discrimination”, it suggests that women are in need of help on their way up and that society cannot create conditions in which careers are independent of circumstances that anyone can influence.

When shortly after the vote in Brussels the EU Justice Commissioner Reding tweeted “Made it”, this was perhaps a bit hasty. Ten EU member states have spoken out against the quota. Germany is still divided about the quota. Chancellor Angela Merkel has declared that the issue of the quota must be resolved at the national level and not by the EU. The two ministers responsible for the relevant remit represent different points of view. Federal Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen favours a 30 percent quota in boards of directors and managers.

Family Minister Kristina Schröder would rely on a self-imposed commitment combined with flexible quotas. The flexi-quota that she advocates would be a middle path between the gentle pressure of the state and the self-imposed commitment of companies. Whether fixed or flexi quota, it will take several years before it becomes clear whether quotas really foster equality at the executive level. The ideal is a quota which secures that balanced company boardrooms create conditions in which quotas need not be discussed.