Several high-profile women in Germany have recently launched the campaign #ICHWILL. The initiators include Janina Kugel, Maria Furtwängler, Jutta Allmendinger, Katja Kraus and Nora Bossong. The campaign is supported by the Federal Minister of Justice Christine Lambrecht and Minister Franziska Giffey, head of the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth.
It’s a great campaign, calling for mandatory women quotas in executive leadership teams and for more gender equality and better chances and stronger representation in top leadership positions for women and minorities. I’m so glad that the German women are finally standing up and calling for more equality. At the same time, based on my own experience and the feedback I get from most of my clients, I’m afraid it will fail. Here are the reasons why:
My experience and statistics:
As an executive coach and trainer with 15 years of professional experience in Germany I have faced the inequality first hand. I have also worked with many women who have navigated the uneven playing field at work their entire careers and they have truly had enough (#jetztreichts). Unfortunately, gender bias and discrimination, and sometimes open and unashamed sexism are alive and well in German business. No wonder: men have almost a monopoly on top leadership in Germany and they shape and maintain a culture that suits them. Only 14% of all board members in the most important German companies are women compared to 86% of men. According to an independent report from 2019, 55 of 160 German DAX companies have “zero women” goal for their supervisory boards by 2022. As one of the #ICHWILL initiators, Janina Kugel said: ”The existing structures are seldom changed by the people who established them.” And the people who established the current leadership “monoculture” are men who show very little willingness or need to change their position of privilege.
Not enough ambition or passion to change things
Many German women protect the status quo because they benefit from it. They live in a very stable, strong economy and they believe that it is because of the “German way of doing things”. This usually means traditional ways of running business which include male leadership, aversion to disturbing the status quo and staying within the boundaries of “old and tried” solutions. Innovation, also in leadership, is not the Germans’ strong suit. People here like stability, and appreciate the comforts it offers. Many women (and men) are willing to trade ambition and passion for the stable paycheck and predictable workplace. So far, they have been rewarded. The unfolding situation in 2020 is a signal that things are changing, but many people are like the metaphorical frog, slowly boiling to death and missing the signs of danger. When women choose not to ask for more opportunities at work, and when they choose not to respond to open bias and inequality, they give up their chance for better professional opportunities and financial independence for themselves and their daughters. In their own realities they are conditioned to believe that “not kicking up the fuss”is the right survival strategy. It is, but only in the short run. The long-term consequences are a different story altogether. They usually involve a combination of resignation, apathy, lack of ambition, frustration, withdrawal from challenging projects, cynicism and in the worst cases quitting or burnout.
German society remains conservative and the role of a woman is still strongly correlated with the role of a mother. There is a very strong, socially reinforced idea of what a “good” mother means: having two children is ideal, and staying at home for several years after a child is born is clearly encouraged. This practically puts many women out of the job market and professional development for 3 to 6 years. When they return, it’s exponentially more difficult to rebuild their career, and frankly, many of them don’t even try. All they care about at that stage is having a stable paycheck and then going home to their kids. Ambition and career are a road kill in this scenario.
No “Ansprechpartner” (contact person)
Women who experience discrimination are forced to discuss their experiences with their bosses, who are mostly men.
It’s like going to a gynecologist who is a man: sure, he will do the job because he is a trained medical doctor, but he can never fully understand and empathize.
The campaign “ICHWILL” demands women quotas in the executive teams because despite years from the initial discussion in 2015, German companies have spectacularly failed to bring in more women into executive positions. And this has a knock-on effect on how women respond to gender inequality, sexism and discrimination at work. They have nowhere to go. Sure, they can go to the Human Resources which is usually a toothless department with no real clout. To begin with, the HR is populated by women, but there is usually a man at the head of it, so they know that the gate-keeper will either downplay the problem, or not let their complaints go much higher. When a woman goes there with a complaint she is usually advised to “think it over”, “sleep on it”, “consider the consequences” or a combination of these. The message is usually: “If you raise it, both you and I will be in trouble. Is it worth it?” And to most women, in the short run, it’s not. They will still get their paycheck, and their job is more or less safe. Until a bigger, more serious incident, that is. Or until they “die a death of a thousand cuts” and quit.
Risk aversion is in the German DNA:
As an expat I have consistently observed that Germans, on average, dislike change. They love order and staying in their comfort zone. Allowing women fairer chances and access to top leadership positions would require for things to change, both at home and at work. Most people are not in favor of change and they are strongly risk averse. If I’ve heard one sentiment on repeat in this country it’s this: “Don’t change a running system.” No wonder that people who ask for things to change are distrusted and shunned. “Ordnung muss sein” (there must be order) is a motto of the status quo keepers. And these “keepers” are still the majority of the society.
Wrong role models are worse than none
Like everywhere else, to survive and thrive in the “man’s world” women who show strong ambition often pay by “flipping to the other side”. They are tougher than men. More brutal than men. More ruthless than men. Less empathetic than men. They grow such thick skin that nothing penetrates it anymore, good or bad. They become a distorted version not only of themselves, but of what it means to be a human being. They are willing to pay every price for the privilege and benefits that come with the power and influence. And by doing this they are setting an awful example for other women who want to participate in top leadership, but without losing themselves in the process. Many women look at such examples and believe that this is the only way and not surprisingly, they are not willing to pay such price. And so they don’t.
“Troublemakers”, not “trendsetters”
There is low tolerance for strong, outspoken women everywhere in the world, and sadly, Germany is not an exception. Here, women are under strong societal pressure to be quiet, nice, likeable and invisible. There is no “Willkommenskultur” for women who speak up against the inequality. They are labeled “troublemakers”, “difficult to work with”, “high maintenance”, “aggressive”, “not knowing their place”, “self-promoting”. I have been called all these things, recently all in one day. Some of my clients have been called worse. Such labels do damage on several levels. First, they are micro-aggressions which cut deep and once they are internalized, they leave emotional scars. Second, they perpetuate the unfair image of ambitious, outspoken women, making our strength look toxic and disruptive. Third, they signal to everybody around that strong women are not welcome, not liked and not rewarded. Such messaging is picked up by other women and girls, silencing them for fear of similar negative labelling and resulting consequences. This results in fewer good role models which means that strong, ambitious and successful women are considered less “normal” and are less represented in the society and business.
And last but not least, there are repercussions for rocking the boat. I experienced it first hand many times, and my clients report the same thing. Just recently I stood up to a client who openly expressed a sexist remark about my colleague. This happened in front of a senior executive and several of his team members. I protested in a very measured way. No matter. Not only was I labeled “unsuitable” as a trainer, I was also labeled “aggressive”, “difficult to work with”, “arrogant” and “demanding”. All I wanted was respect for my team member. All I got was a lot of criticism, a very lukewarm apology and a lost business opportunity, because it’s been indicated to me that I won’t be invited to this company again. I got a label “Troublemaker” for doing the right thing when nobody else was willing to. And this is the sad story which I share with many professional women in Germany, on repeat. Again, the message is this: “Don’t rock the boat, bite your tongue and you will be rewarded. Do otherwise, and you will bear the consequences.”
These experiences and observations many of my clients and I have made are quite disheartening and they are the reason why I think #ICHWILL might not succeed. At the same time, I support it and I will continue coaching and training my clients so that they can take the right decisions and actions in their respective situations. Despite having strong evidence from their own Chancellor Angela Merkel that strong female leaders create prosperity and stability this country doesn’t seem ready to allow equal opportunities to other women who show leadership ambitions. Change is slow here and I don’t think I will see much more equality and acceptance for women in leadership positions, or women entrepreneurs in my professional life. But the #ICHWILL campaign is hopefully a strong signal to the society that women are willing, and they are more than ready and capable to take on highest executive and political roles. I hope when they finally do, the benefits from having more women leaders will silence the detractors of progress. Fingers crossed, and good luck!