Germany’s journey towards a gender quota

  • post Type / Young Humanists International
  • Date / 8 March 2016

Marieke Prien, YouthSpeak March

The beginning of the year 2016 brought an interesting change for the German economy: the gender quota came into effect. About 100 of the biggest companies as well as the civil services now have to make sure that at least 30% of newly appointed members of the supervisory committee are female. If a new position is not given to a woman, it will remain vacant unless there are already 30% females. In the civil services, the quota will be raised to 50% in 2018.

About 3500 smaller companies are obligated to set their own quota for the supervisory committee as well as the executive board and the two management levels below the executive board. The individual quota may not be lower than the current percentage of women in the respective levels of management, except if this percentage is already above 30%. This also means that if the percentage is currently zero, it can be kept at that without any consequences. Many companies have seized this fact and set their quota to zero.

​And yes, it works both ways. There need to be at least 30% females, and there also need to be at least 30% males. But there is a very simple explanation why the law is often referred to as “women’s quota” instead of gender quota: It is without doubt that it is women who are greatly underrepresented in leadership positions.

Nowadays, we have more well educated women than ever before, with the majority of university graduates being female, in economical areas of study as well as in general. But the percentages of women in leadership positions are alarmingly small. Currently, there are only about 18.9% female members in supervisory committees and 5.8% female members in the executive boards of the companies affected by the law.[i]

The most commonly named reason for the underrepresentation of women is that they are forced to decide between career and family and are not provided with opportunities and support to pursue both. Also, studies have shown that a person who is in charge of hiring or promoting another person will most likely chose someone who seems to be alike. In addition, people naturally form groups and do not want their own group to lose power. In a system with a male majority, this clearly makes it hard for women to be put into leadership positions, even if they have the same or even better skills than male competitors. In addition, it is often said that women lack the confidence and will to pursue a leadership position. This might be true, but it cannot simply put down as solely the women’s “fault.” In this predominantly male world with men being used to work with other men on the same level, and with women only being the ones supporting their work from a lower level, e.g. as a secretary, there is a lot of sexism and discrimination that scares of and discourages many women and is hard to overcome. It takes the will, hard work and stamina of both sides to change this into a working climate in which gender does not matter and everyone can work comfortably together.

That being said, it is hard to decide if a gender quota is the right way to achieve this goal. The law was preceded by years of debates on this topic. Several studies and polls have shown that most citizens want more women in leadership positions but are unsure or directly against a quota by law.

Representatives of all genders found arguments both for and against the quota. For example, a lot of people hoped it would give women the same chance at becoming part of the supervisory committees or leadership positions as men have. Some also referred to studies stating that businesses with a greater than average amount of women in leadership positions are more successful. Others, however, feared that it would backfire with people accusing women that they only got the job because of the quota. You’d think that people raising these accusations would also ask how many men are only in their jobs because of the men’s quota in the heads of numerous decision-makes, but, ya know. Instead, the fear of being called a “quota woman” is one of the main reasons why many women have rejected the law.

The debate being especially frequent amongst women shows how hard it is to make the right decision. Many female politicians and journalists publicly made cases for and against the law. In 2011, the former Minister of Labour and Social Affairs (Ursula von der Leyen) – a female member of the Christian Democratic Union, suggested a law enforcing a gender quota. This was rejected by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is also female and also member of the Christian Democratic Union.

At this point in time, the debate had already been going on for a while. As early as 2001, the former Minister of Family Affairs, Christine Bergmann of the Social Democratic Party, had tried to initiate an equality law for the private sector of the economy but was not able to pull through with it, mainly because of the resistance and lobby work of entrepreneurs’ associations who feared a loss of power. Instead, the associations and government signed a voluntary agreement. This agreement stated that the companies would work out their own plans to achieve a better gender quota, and that the government would not force a quota by law upon them as long as the agreement would be put into action successfully. It wasn’t.

Since then, there have been several approaches for new arrangements, like the one by Ursula von der Leyen mentioned above. In 2009, former chairman of the Social Democratic Party, Franz Müntefering, demanded a law with a gender quota of 40%. Two years later, former Minister of Family Affairs, Kristina Schröder of the Christian Democratic Union, fought for an agreement in which companies had to set their own quota and pledge to fulfil them. This last approach was supported by most citizens and eventually came into effect.

By now, some companies had understood that this was their last chance to prevent a quota by law and pledged to appoint more women into leadership positions. Amongst them were BMW, Daimler and Bosch. They did not aim for 30% though. They aimed for 15-20%. The Deutsche Telekom was a bit more motivated and pledged to have 30% women in middle and high management levels by 2015. According to the company, they have almost reached this goal in some levels and even reached a higher percentage in the supervisory committee.

But, even with Telekom as an exception, the companies again did not significantly improve their gender rate and eventually, in March 2015, the parliament passed the law on the gender quota.

Of course in a perfect world there would be no need for a quota by law, not even a need for “voluntary” agreements and commitments. And we should keep working for a society which works this way. But changing society takes a long time, and there are setbacks and forces actively antagonizing. This is why, even though there might be many arguments speaking against a quota, it is probably the right way to set the path and help bringing a change in peoples’ minds that eventually brings a change in society.

[i] https://www.euractiv.com/section/social-europe-jobs/news/germany-to-legislate-30-women-on-company-boards/

Marieke Prien is a Humanist from Germany, and is IHEYO’s Membership Officer. 

The views expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the policy or views of the IHEU.


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