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Job & Career

Digital Women

Leadership positions in German companies are male-dominated. For now. These women are proof that the gender balance is starting to shift.

09 Jan. 2016

It’s just on nine months since Germany passed a law requiring publicly listed companies to give at least 30 percent of their supervisory board seats to women. Meanwhile not a lot has changed, however – except that the discussion on the merits of such a quota has largely disappeared from the media. "Largely" but not completely, as successful women still have to put up with interview questions about whether they’re for or against the quota.

One such woman is Claudia Nagel, who was recently voted one of "25 women we would like to see as a DAX30 CEO by 2025" by the magazine Edition F and Huffington Post. Her view on the gender quota: "I think we’ve reached the point where excluding women is no longer an economically viable proposition." She was asked the question, and she gave an answer. But, as a co-founder and Managing Director of the German tech startup Kiwi , she’s got much more important things on her mind. Like international expansion, for example.

Kiwi develops hands-free lock systems that enable users to open doors without having to reach for a key, swipe card, chip or any other device. Users simply carry a small RFID transponder in their pocket or bag that remains in constant radio contact with a modem that’s wired into the doorbell/lock system. As soon as the user approaches the door, it automatically unlocks.

Demand for the system has been so strong that Kiwi now has a workforce of 30, and in March 2015 the company attracted four million euros of investment capital for its expansion plans. The idea for the product came to Nagel a few years ago when she found herself juggling an armload of shopping bags and three children while fumbling for her door key outside her apartment. Which just goes to show that, for this former McKinsey consultant, family and career are not mutually exclusive.

Diversity instead of enforced quotas
Deutsche Börse CIO Hauke Stars has a family, too. Plus, as a woman and East German who’s made it to the head of a DAX30 company, she’s a statistical minority twice over. At Deutsche Börse (the world’s second-largest financial marketplace operator by revenue), Stars is responsible for IT and Market Data & Services. Prior to joining Deutsche Börse in 2012, she worked as Country General Manager Switzerland at HP. In 2007, her very first year of service at HP, she played a key role in enabling the company to grow by 10 percent – twice the rate of its competitors at the time. Her motto is "Don’t whine. Just focus on what lies ahead and get on with it." HP steered clear of gender targets, focusing instead on diversity in the sense of achieving a mix of age groups, ethnicities and, where appropriate, genders. "But at the end of the day, what counts is performance. Without that, everything else is just empty platitudes," Stars says.

These days, Hauke Stars is in charge of expanding Deutsche Börse’s vitally important IT operations. The international financial-sector publisher Institutional Investor put her at place 36 in its 2015 "Tech 50" ranking of IT visionaries. And in 2014, Berliner Sparkasse rated her the fourth most influential woman in the international financial technology sector. That’s a long way from her childhood dream of becoming a pediatrician. And maybe her work-life balance would have been better had she stayed with that career choice. But then, Stars is scathing of the whole idea of work-life balance. "It’s a nonsense. It implies that I’m somehow not really alive when I’m working – but the truth is, my work gives me immense pleasure and is an integral part of a very fulfilling life," she says.

It’s better with women at the helm
Hauke Stars would probably get on well with Claudia Nemat. Both women are outliers in that they’re both IT bosses and board members of major German corporations. In Nemat’s case, the corporation is Deutsche Telekom, which itself is something of an outlier, having voluntarily adopted a 30 percent gender target as long ago as 2010. "Having more women at the top makes us better, it’s that simple," the company’s then CEO, René Obermann, said at the time. Claudia joined Telekom a year later and believes the company is on the right track. "Women now make up 25 percent of our management team," she says.

Nemat does, however, get a little frustrated with the media’s constant and excessive interest in her achievement as one of just ten women to have made it to top management level in a DAX-listed company. "This narrow focus on DAX-level board members skews the discussion on diversity too much towards the very top end of the pyramid and possibly also feeds into empty tokenism. Companies need more diversity at all levels of management in order to be able to zero in more accurately on their customers’ needs, become more agile and provide better working environments for the next generation," she says.

Prior to joining Deutsche Telekom, Claudia Nemat spent 17 years with McKinsey & Company, where, among much else, she was Co-leader of the Global Technology Sector.

Dream careers built on female values
Company directors Anna Alex and Julia Bösch may not be as high-power as Stars and Nemat, but they’re certainly garnering their fair share of attention as co-founders of the successful fashion startup Outfittery. Germany’s Rheinische Post newspaper, for instance, ranks them alongside Katharina Borchert – up until recently a managing director at media outlet Spiegel Online – and Chaos Computer Club spokesperson Constanze Kurz as being among the "25 most important women for the digital future." The accolade probably has something to do with the extraordinary success of their online fashion shop. Unlike other providers, Outfittery is more than just an e-tailer. It’s also – and in fact primarily – a personal style advisory service. For men. Once they’ve signed up for the service and completed a questionnaire on their fashion preferences, users receive a telephone consultation and, based on this, a carton in the mail containing three carefully selected, complete outfits to try on and buy. Outfittery was founded three years ago and, according to business information service Creditreform, generated revenues of just on seven million euros in 2014 with a workforce of around 150. According to its own information, the company has 100,000 customers in German-speaking Europe.

Alex (29, degree in economics) and Bösch (30, degree in business administration) are typical of Germany’s Berlin startup scene. And yet not so typical – because they’re women and hence still something of a rarity in the German Internet startup world. Indeed, a study by the German Startups Association (BVDS) indicates that last year, only 13 percent of all start-up founders in Germany were women. But Alex and Bösch haven’t let that get in the way of their winning business model. In early 2015, they landed a major investor for Outfittery in the form of Northzone, which put up 20 million US dollars . Since then, they’ve also attracted other investors, including Highland Capital Partners and Holtzbrinck Ventures.

Anna Alex and Julia Bösch have obviously struck a chord with their idea, not to mention making intelligent use of their advantages as women. "Sometimes the fact that we’re women is definitely a plus," says Bösch. "By which I mean our product has to look good and high-end, it has to be attractively packaged, and the documentation has to look good too. And that’s an area where maybe women have an edge. Another thing that women perhaps do better than men is listen. It’s the ability to put your own preconceptions to one side and listen to customers to find out what they want. If there’s any meaningful difference between men and women, then that’s probably it."

Good planning now is better than prescriptive measures later on
For Martina Koederitz, on the other hand, being a woman is not a decisive factor in being successful in digital business. Koederitz is the General Manager of IBM Germany, a position she has held since 2011. With two of its six executive board seats held by women, the company is a shining model of compliance with Germany’s 30 percent gender quota. But Koederitz believes prescribed diversity does nothing to further the position of women in business. "To truly ensure diversity at management level, companies need to search systematically for talent years ahead. They also need to have flexible work-time policies. At IBM, for example, this would mean giving employees the ability to structure their own work hours so as to allow flexibility for family and leisure and even looking after relatives when they are unwell," she says. "If a company has for years neglected to build up its talent pool, then adopting a mandatory gender quota isn’t going to fix the problem." Koederitz believes the only thing the mandatory quota will achieve is poach highly qualified and skilled women away from those companies that have done their homework and cultivated their talent.

Martina Koederitz herself has risen up through the ranks at IBM, having worked for the company for 27 years. She joined IBM as a systems consultant at the age of 23 after completing her university studies. Her view on women in digital business: "IT is no longer a purely technical field. Increasingly, it’s about providing advice, project development and creative solutions – all areas in which women have always excelled."

In September, Martina Koederitz was honored with the Mestemacher 2015 Female Manager of the Year award for her contribution to gender equality. In the words of awards committee president Professor Ulrike Detmers, "Martina Koederitz’s business skills and acumen have played a major role in the success of IBM. She is another beacon of change in our male-dominated business world."

With talent like that, who needs a gender quota?