Happy International Women’s Day

make it happenAs Germany introduces female quotas to non-executive boards, on the occasion of Interntional Women’s Day FTI Consulting’s Kerstin Duhme wonders if this is the best way to “make it happen” .

As of 2016 more than 100 listed companies in Germany will have to allot 30% of seats on non-executive boards to women and another 3,500 SMEs will need to determine their own requirements.

While Germany’s boss is a woman and the defence of the country is in the hands of a mother of seven, there is not one single female CEO among the 30 largest companies on Germany’s blue-chip DAX index. Is it time to force companies to boost representation?

Before becoming a consultant more than 11 years ago, I worked for the German Greens for a decade and was a vehement defender of the party’s own quota system. In fact I was often the quota woman. I however painfully learned – at least back then – that key decisions were still made amongst the Green alpha males in their special non-quota circles.

My 23-year-old nephew asked me yesterday what I thought about the quota, which developed into quite a heated online family chat, involving teenage sisters, working mothers and fathers, a childless aunt and astonished grandparents. More than 50 years after the beginning of the modern feminist movement, this is still dangerous territory. Particularly in Germany, the country with the lowest birth rate in Europe and one of the lowest in the world.

What went wrong? While German women are not having babies, neither are they sufficiently represented in leadership positions. Somehow it seems illogical. Wouldn’t one think that if women decide against children they might at least pursue highflying careers?

OECD studies have shown that countries with high female labour participation rates, such as Sweden, tend to have higher fertility rates than those where fewer women work, such as Germany, Italy and Japan. Indeed, the decline in fertility has been greatest in several countries where female employment is low.

Countries like Germany where more women stay at home often offer less support for working mothers. This means that fewer women take or look for jobs; but it also means lower birth rates because women who do work often postpone childbearing, sometimes indefinitely. And ultimately this also means that many women don’t aim high because they do not believe they can combine a career with being a mother. If we want more women in leadership positions governments need to remove obstacles that make it hard for women to combine work with having children. This means offering parental leave for both parents (Norway provides an excellent example of how to do this), nationwide child care, longer school hours (schools in Germany sometimes finish as early as 11am), more flexible working hours, and reforming tax and social-security systems that create disincentives for women to work. And how about a partnership between companies and parents – tailored and diverse – to show support for childcare at the workplace?

This year’s International Women’s Day’s motto is “make it happen”. Is a quota for non-executive boards the right way to make it happen? I have my doubts.

Kerstin Duhme is Senior Managing Director at FTI Consulting Brussels.

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