Corporate boards: "It's not just about qualification, but about power"

Valerie Holsboer was dismissed as the head of the Employment Agency. Why women are often so short on the board, explains the researcher Elke Holst.


The number of women on boards of German companies has increased significantly in recent years - albeit at a rather low level. There are 27 women in the executive boards of the German DAX30 companies today, and just under ten years ago there were three women. Nevertheless, the proportion of women in the DAX Executive Board is only just under 14 percent, and in the executive floors of all 160 German stock exchange companies it is even only 8.8 percent. In addition, it is often women who have to leave their posts early. Why this is so, explains Elke Holst, until recently Research Director for Gender Studies at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) in Berlin.

ZEIT ONLINE: Last week, Valerie Holsboer was dismissed from the Employment Agency, one of the largest authorities in the country. The days of Sylvie Matherat on the board of the Deutsche Bank are numbered, previously there had the IT boss Kim Hammonds go. Older figures show that female CEOs go on average after three years while men stay for eight years. Why do many women persevere for less?

Elke Holst: Women, especially as managers, have to overcome an additional obstacle: gender stereotypes. A style of leadership that is stereotypically non-male, less hierarchical and supportive, is often interpreted as a weakness by women. But even if they lead like men, they are irritating. For example, male board colleagues, men in the workforce and on the board - and sometimes other women. Resistance can arise from this irritation. Now, one might think that there is a dilemma that women, no matter how they do it, encounter resistance. But we are in transition, it's about a kind of paradigm shift. In a fast-paced world of work, workers increasingly have to work independently in teams. The hierarchical style of leadership, which men have traditionally learned, fits less and less in the present day.

Elke Holst is a national economist and from 2010 to May 2019 she headed the research area Gender Studies at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) in Berlin. Retired, she retains the DIWals Senior Research Fellow and teaches at the Europa University Flensburg as a Privatdozent. She has been researching women in leadership positions for years and developed the Manager Barometer, which analyzes women's shares in executive boards and supervisory boards of German companies. © German Institute for Economic Research eV

ZEIT ONLINE: Is leadership today more important than in the past?

Holst : In high leadership positions, it is not just about qualification, but also about power. Cliques often play an important role, these are networks of people - traditionally men - who support and favor each other. For women it is important to understand these structures and support each other. Precisely because there are so few women in leadership positions so far, women's networks are less powerful. But I have the impression that this is changing and that women in boards can promote the next generation and serve as role models for them.

ZEIT ONLINE: Ten of 27 board members in DAX companies are responsible for the HR department, and the employment agency was also the responsibility of Valerie Holsboer. Are the problems of women in boards also related to this topic?

Holst: The human resources department actually fits very well with the female stereotype of being obligatory and balancing and having social skills. I suppose that's why women are more accepted in human resources and can climb there. Personnel management, in my view, is by no means a soft topic, but a particularly exhausting one. Especially in times of digitization, where you have to motivate staff for new qualifications and in the worst case also has to reduce. This can lead to massive conflicts with board colleagues, the works council and the workforce.

"The employment agency should consider the decision-making process for dismissing and nominating board members." Elke Holst

ZEIT ONLINE: Often the official justification, when women leave the board, is that they leave the company "for personal reasons". Many have never commented on what actually happened. Why is that?

Holst: The women also want to have another job. They fear that it is not without good reason that the potential new employer does not want to be associated with the old conflicts from their previous job and does not even want to have such problems in-house.

ZEIT ONLINE: When Valerie Holsboer was dismissed from the employment agency last week, the board of directors dismissed her competence. The conflict was held in public. How does this happen?

Holst: Of course I do not know what actually happened at the employment agency. But I think it's good that Mrs. Holsboer has faced the conflict. She is a strong woman. And how should the image of women change if strong women do not represent their convictions? By all accounts, the political representatives have voted in favor of the whereabouts of Mrs Holsboer. And the employee side spoke out against them not for reasons of content, but rather for tactical reasons, in order to be able to continue to easily appoint a member of the Executive Board from among their ranks. One of the other's crows does not chop one eye out. In this way, factual decisions fade into the background. I think the Employment Agency should be thinking about the decision-making process for dismissing and nominating board members.

ref: zeit