InterviewAnja Seng, President of FidAR

"The main obstacle is hierarchical, male-dominated leadership structures."

The percentage of women in leadership positions in the German economy is increasing especially in companies subject to legal quota regulations. Anja Seng, President of the "Women in supervisory boards" initiative (FidAR), discusses why the impact of these laws remains insufficient and what is lacking in companies.

"The main obstacle is hierarchical, male-dominated leadership structures."

Prof. Seng, where do we stand in Germany regarding women in supervisory boards?

The journey is still far from over. Yes, we have seen changes, and they are indeed visible. In supervisory boards of companies subject to gender quotas, we have a 37% representation of women – but only in these cases. It works where the legal framework applies. Currently, 101 companies in Germany fall under the quota. In relation to the total number of companies in the market, this is obviously a minuscule percentage. The number of supervisory board positions is therefore manageable. One can observe that the legal requirements have been easily met – qualified women are readily available for these positions.

What are you advocating for now?

On the path to parity, we urgently need an expansion of the gender quota. We advocate for it to apply not only to publicly listed and co-determined companies but to publicly listed or co-determined companies. These are the companies for which there is a legal obligation to specify targets for the proportion of women in the executive board, supervisory board, and the first and second management levels. By the way, not all companies that should do this actually do it. It seems that many companies are not aware of the fact that they fall under the law. There is no existing data on this yet, but we are currently investigating it.

Are there options for sanctions if companies do not fulfill their obligations in this regard?

There are sanctions, but they have not yet been enforced. The handling of this matter is being discussed between the responsible ministries. Substantial fines are possible. It was introduced with the tightening of the Minimum Participation Act in 2021. Previously, there were hardly any sanctions regarding the target setting obligation, which also saw minimal enforcement.

What is your perspective on the situation in executive boards?

When the legal regulation, the aforementioned Minimum Participation Act, came, the pace of meeting the requirements was even faster than with the supervisory board quota. In publicly listed and co-determined companies with more than three board members, there must now be at least one woman on the executive board. It didn't even take a year and a half for the companies falling under the law to implement this. However, only 62 companies are affected by the Minimum Participation Act. This is, of course, far too few.

Why is FidAR still mainly focusing on supervisory boards?

Change needs to come from the top. Supervisory boards can make a significant impact because they appoint the executive board. When the female perspective is introduced from the top, there is a higher likelihood that it will permeate downwards. We also need to discuss issues like working hours, recruitment, the talent pipeline, and work-life balance, but as a volunteer-run organization, we need to focus.

What political options do you currently see to further intensify the pressure for more women in leadership positions?

Applying the EU Gender Balance Directive to Germany as well would be helpful. It was adopted at the end of last year. Germany has the option to use the so-called derogation clause because legal regulations in this direction already exist in this country. However, the EU Directive specifies a 40% gender quota for supervisory boards or 33% for both supervisory and executive boards together. The regulations are somewhat stricter and apply to more companies. This would be a good starting point for expanding the existing regulations in Germany.

Are you satisfied with the EU Directive?

It was important that a new impetus was created with the EU-wide regulation. 40% is already good. Parity is the goal, but parity doesn't necessarily mean exactly 50% mathematically. It's mainly about balance.

An individual woman, even if she is celebrated in certain instances, is at risk of being silenced prematurely.

Anja Seng, FidAR

You say that there have already been significant changes. Where do you currently see the biggest challenges in getting women into leadership positions?

The obstacles are still largely sociopolitical in Germany – the classical issues: glass ceiling, unconscious biases, work-life balance. The main hindrance is hierarchical, male-dominated leadership structures. We have the networking issue – the so-called similarity-based recruitment. Changing something like that sustainably is very difficult. Some women find themselves quite isolated in supervisory boards because they are often the only ones in these bodies. An individual woman, even if she is celebrated in certain instances, is at risk of being silenced prematurely. We need more penetration; that's why a 30%, preferably 40%, representation of women is necessary.

Unconscious biases don't only affect women; they also affect men when they decide to be more involved in family matters. We also need to focus on the education system to open up gender-specifically manifested educational pathways and training. There are still too few and insufficient options for childcare – this is an area where the education mandate could start much earlier. Other countries are simply further ahead and better in this regard. It starts with the qualification and compensation of daycare workers.

How can the male-dominated structures be cracked?

There are many approaches – from structures to culture and process design. The first step is to create transparency and realize where we stand and what we want. Then, there are plenty of practical tips: To combat unconscious biases, structured interview guidelines for job interviews can help avoid gut decisions – this touches the issue of similarity-based recruitment again.

Some companies now only advertise positions in part-time, and full-time roles have to be justified. There are compensation structures that are oriented towards pipeline development and set incentives. This also makes it relevant for male executives to participate in these changes.

Being mindful of language is crucial as it shapes our perception of the world around us. Despite the apparent complexity of gender-neutral language, it can be mastered and applied in a more straightforward manner. Moreover, it's not just about spoken words; it also applies to texts and imagery. How a company presents itself, what images and colors it uses, and how it addresses people all matter.

Establishing mentoring, promoting internal and external networks, and creating role models also help tremendously.

Are there companies that you consider as role models?

My current highlight is Üstra, a public transport provider in Hanover. Their three-member executive board is entirely female. If they were to expand it, it would have to be a man, as Üstra is listed on the regulated market and therefore falls under the Minimum Participation Act. Another example for me is Pfeiffer Vacuum, with Britta Giesen as CEO, who has a technical background and a personal commitment to promoting female talent. The supervisory board at Pfeiffer Vacuum is also female-led, with Ayla Busch. Sanofi is interesting as well. They have consistently introduced target systems for women in leadership positions, tied compensation structures very systematically to female advancement, and established network programs. A somewhat older example is Peter Terium, CEO of RWE. Internally, he set a 30% target for filling supervisory board positions in subsidiary companies and established programs for potential female candidates – to prepare them in terms of content, establish a network, and give them visibility. It seemed to work well from what I can assess from the outside.

Britta Giesen, CEO Pfeiffer Vacuum

Are there any male members in FidAR?

Yes, but regrettably, their number is still limited. We have recently grown significantly and now have around 1,400 members, including a double-digit number of men. We would like to have more because ultimately, what we want to achieve can only be done together.