Board Members Must Accept More Female Executives, Claims Ulrike Wieduwilt


October 17, 2011

Executive search consultant, Ulrike Wieduwilt, believes that boards and supervisory bodies of German DAX-listed companies have to radically adapt their views regarding women in executive positions. Read the transcript below of a recent interview in German with Deutschlandfunk radio.

André Hatting: Today, things are coming to a head. Government officials are meeting with the bosses of the 30 DAX-listed companies in an effort to explain how the government intends to get more women "onto the bridge". Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen says only lip service has been paid so far. She wants a law that will require a third of all executives to be women by 2018. I am on the phone with Ulrike Wieduwilt, who has been a consultant at Russell Reynolds Associates for eight years. Russell Reynolds Associates is one of the world's largest executive search firm and specialises in seeking senior-level executives. Good morning, Ms Wieduwilt.

Ulrike Wieduwilt: Good morning, Mr Hatting.

Hatting: Ms Wieduwilt, how many women have you recruited into top executive positions this year?

Wieduwilt: Looking at supervisory bodies, I had two this year; looking at boards, there were two or three positions.

Hatting: And how many men were hired?

Wieduwilt: It’s probably a ratio of 20 women to 80 men. But there are big differences depending on the industry. Are we talking about DAX 30 companies or are we talking about international companies generating a large part of their turnover in Germany? Let's take Coca-Cola or Danone or Carlsberg, for instance. Here, we will find women in top executive positions much more often than in the DAX 30 companies.

Why are the German DAX 30 companies having such a hard time? Why does it seem easier in a company like Coca-Cola, which you just mentioned?

Wieduwilt: I believe that, for one, the international companies have been hiring women for ages, and they did not have to regulate the hiring policy by coming up with quotas. Instead, these companies simply take the best talent available. There are marketing divisions in international companies that, today, employ 70% or 80% women. If you look at the large DAX 30 companies, many of them are industrial companies. It always has been difficult for women to get a foothold in the industrial companies: a) because of the jobs that require formalised training and b) because of the attitude of board members who simply are not used to working with women. This means that even the second or third levels don't have too many women if you look at the heavy industrial or automotive companies.

If what you say is true and there is that kind of attitude in German companies, can a female quota change that? Because that would mean companies would be forced to change.

I think if a female quota were passed into law tomorrow—and even women don't know whether they want this or not—the quota should be considered only a guideline. Here at Russell Reynolds Associates, we are supposed to put the best person into a position. If we have a guideline or an obligation to henceforth recruit 30% women, then I believe we can do so and still get the best person into a position because these kinds of women are available. But I can see that a board’s attitude has to change drastically. It is interesting that board members who have daughters already have a different attitude or are about to change their views.

Hatting: One country has been practising this very successfully since 2006; namely, Norway. It has a 40% female quota for supervisory bodies, and the policy is working. Why do you think such a rigid guideline would not work as easily in Germany?

Wieduwilt: Because I always will believe we cannot and should not discriminate against ability and performance. At Russell Reynolds Associates, we cannot be forced to recruit a woman, but, instead, we should try to select three women when we present six candidates. This is something we actually can support in executive search. Then you can decide who of the six is best regarding skills and knowledge and recruit him or her to the position. Nonetheless, there will be great changes in 2013 and again in 2017 in the supervisory boards, and I believe we will see more women being offered positions.

Hatting: Industry's counter argument goes like this: We'd like to employ more women in leadership positions, but where can we find them? There aren't enough women who are suitably qualified.

Wieduwilt: We at Russell Reynolds Associates do not believe that, and I, specifically, don't deem that to be true. There are many superbly qualified women who are in positions of great responsibility and who have excellent skills. Obviously, there are differences depending on which industry you are in, whether you work with consumer goods or with the automotive companies. Women are available, and they are ready. All you have to do is look around a little better. But companies often will say a woman can be considered qualified only if she has run a €5 billion company. That is an exclusion argument because not many women have done that. But they can deliver a superb performance in legal work or in an academic position. Here, Norway and actually all of Scandinavia are excellent examples.

Hatting: You've said, Ms Wieduwilt, that you reject a general female quota. But what do you make of the Family Minister Kristina Schröder's idea to enact a law mandating a female quota but that every company can determine its own quota?

Wieduwilt: Basically, at Russell Reynolds Associates, we propagate growth quotas. What this means is that if a company today has not a single woman on its board, that company could aim for a growth quota of 15% within a realistic number of years. Companies that already have 30% or 25% or 20% women on the board probably will have fewer problems. Growth quotas, I believe, tend to reflect a company's development.

Hatting: Just before their meeting today, the DAX companies made a kind of peace offer vis-à-vis the government that contained a self-commitment. Was that believable or do you think it won't work?
Wieduwilt: I would think that politics need to keep up the pressure. Then the plan might work, even the self-commitment part. Some companies have advanced quite a bit along this path. Let me add something fundamental: The DAX companies should start looking at the Old Economy and at the New Economy. The new industries and all the online organisations already are staffed by women at roughly 50%. And this is true right up to the top. So, basically, what companies have to do is reposition themselves and live up to expectations.

Hatting: That was Ulrike Wieduwilt, consultant at the executive search firm, Russell Reynolds Associates. Thank you very much for being our guest, Ms Wieduwilt.

Thank you very much, Mr Hatting.

Remarks made by people interviewed by us reflect their views. Deutschlandradio does not adopt any comments made by others during interviews or at debates.

Ulrike Wieduwilt focuses on senior-level assignments for consumer products clients. Based in Hamburg, she specializes in conducting assignments for clients in fast moving consumer goods, both in industry and in trade/retail. Ulrike has completed numerous high-profile searches for board members and CEOs of German and European companies.

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Board Members Must Accept More Female Executives, Claims Ulrike Wieduwilt