Telekom aims for more women on board

The logo of the German telecoms provider Deutsche Telekom is seen at twilight at the company's headquarters in Bonn, Germany.

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: More than 800 women serve on the boards of Fortune 500 companies. One-and-a-half women per board may not sound like much, but it is a giant leap compared to the numbers you'll find in Germany. In Europe's biggest economy, women are almost completely absent from the boardroom. One German company decided to do something about that.

From Berlin, Kyle James has our report.


KYLE JAMES: Deutsche Telekom says that by the end of 2015, one-third of all its upper and middle-management positions are to be filled by women.

Spokeswoman Anne Wenders says this recognizes the way the labor market is developing: 60 percent of today's university graduates in Germany are female. It's also about social fairness, but Wenders says there's another big motivation.

ANNE WENDERS: It is simply an economic necessity because studies show that teams with a greater diversity simply act more profitable and achieve better results.

The policy will apply to the entire Deutsche Telekom Group, including T-Mobile in the United States. The company says despite incentives it had in place, not enough women were moving up the corporate ladder, especially into top management.

At meetings of professional businesswomen, like this one in Berlin, the problems of gender discrimination are often discussed and the picture sometimes seems bleak. Of Germany's top 200 companies, only one has a female CEO. Women hold under 8 percent of the seats in German corporate boardrooms. That's half the percentage held by women at Fortune 500 companies in the U.S.

Barbara Klose-Hecht, president of Berlin's business and professional women club, says German business has a long way to go.

BARBARA Klose-Hecht: It's an old boys' club also in the leading positions of the enterprises and the old boys, if they have to choose between women and men for the positions, then they vote for men.

One big reason for the single-sex boardrooms, experts say is cultural.

This German TV ad from the 1950's shows a smiling woman preparing food in her kitchen. Many in Germany are still locked in that mindset when it comes to gender roles, according to Elke Holst, an economics researcher in Berlin. She says many male executives still feel that promoting a woman who has children is risky because they may lack flexibility and commitment. In 2001, the German government sat down with business leaders and agreed on a voluntary program to help women move up the corporate hierarchy. It didn't work, she says.

ELKE Holst: The position in management of women does not get better, so I think if you don't want to wait forever, you have to take harder steps to reach your goal.

But to some, Deutsche Telekom's quota step was one step too far. German companies like Siemens and Lufthansa said they won't follow Telekom's lead.

And Jana Schimke of the German Employers' Association says decrees from on high are not the way to go.

JANA Schimke: We should focus instead on changing policies that push women into traditional roles. There are a lot practical problems that stand in the way of women moving up in their careers.

Problems such as tax systems that favor single-earner households, usually with a male breadwinner. There's also a severe shortage of childcare facilities. Many schools let out at noon, making it hard for mothers to balance kids and career.

The German government says it's not considering introducing mandatory quotas for female executives right now, but some of its neighbors are moving that way. Norway already has a strict quota law. France, the Netherlands and Spain are in the process of drafting similar legislation.

In Berlin, I'm Kyle James for Marketplace.

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