Women Managers

Not so Lonely at the Top

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"We can't return we can only look behind from where we came in the circle game." (Joni Mitchell). Sources: Bloomberg, dpa, private

It’s not a club. There are no membership rolls, no dues, no application form, no clubhouse. Attendance is by invitation only. And it’s not an association. There are no bylaws, no officers, no tax registration. The Merton Circle is an exclusive network of that rare type of German executive – some 30 women who occupy top positions in business.

“We are not a political organization nor a marketing club nor a registered association,” says Tina Müller, who is leaving her post as Opel’s marketing chief to become chief executive of cosmetics retailer Douglas. “We don’t go hiking together or practice yoga.” In short, says one of the trio who started the group three years ago, “We women managers are doing what our male colleagues have been doing for centuries: We are networking.”

Ms. Müller – along with Antonella Mei-Pochtler, a partner at Boston Consulting, and Kati Najpoor-Schütte, a partner at headhunting firm Egon Zehnder – launched the Merton Circle over dinner in November 2014. They were eating in the restaurant in the Villa Merton in central Frankfurt, hence the name. The informal group has grown tenfold since and now includes Dorothee Blessing, head of Germany for JPMorgan Chase; Beatrice Guillaume-Grabisch, head of Germany for Nestlé; Simone Menne, CFO of Boehringer-Ingelheim; Ariane Reinhart, management board member at Continental, and two dozen other highly placed women executives.

“The time is ripe for such a group.”

Ariane Reinhart, head of HR, Continental

Since the group has been flying under the radar, it’s perhaps fitting that their first media interview was held in Lufthansa’s first-class passenger terminal at Frankfurt Airport. Many members pass through the terminal often in the course of their international business travels. Its exclusivity says everything about the group.

The proportion of women in top business positions has been slowly increasing in Germany, but still lags the levels in many other industrial countries. For the founders, a women’s network is a chance to talk to each other without having to justify or defend anything about their positions. The Merton Circle is one of a few women’s networks that have taken root over the past several years. The kind of residual chauvinism they are dealing with is clear from the experience of Heike Kroll, a labor lawyer who founded another such network in 2007. Her male colleagues smiled condescendingly and sarcastically referred to it as her “knitting circle.”

Women executives have felt largely excluded from many of the business groups dominated by their male counterparts. Germany is chockablock with groups like the Baden-Badener Business Dialogue, the Evian Franco-German meeting, the Atlantik-Brücke, Davos World Economic Forum, Bilderberg Group and various alumni and student groups. There are a fair sprinkling of women participants, but the boards composed almost exclusively of men give the game away.

The Merton Circle meets about four times a year, in various venues, ranging from skyscraper offices to private homes. Usually only about two-thirds of the full complement can attend. The group eschews many of the traditional meeting places for business clubs because they are usually adorned with grim portraits of bewhiskered male executives of bygone eras. These distinguished venues include the Frankfurter Gesellschaft, the Industrie-Club Düsseldorf, the Munich Men’s Club and the Bremen Schaffermahlzeit.

The growing self-confidence and assertiveness of women executives is evident in the Merton Circle. These top executives esteem the intimacy and informality of the group. “We’re not an ephemeral event; we’re building a network designed for the long-term where trust is what counts,” says Ms. Najipoor-Schütte. “We are interested in each other personally, not in our businesses.” Ariane Reinhart, head of human resources at Continental, adds: “The time is ripe for such a group.”

The self-assured attitude of the Merton Circle marks an advance on some of the earlier women’s networks. “Generation CEO,” for instance, was actually started by a man. Longtime headhunter Heiner Thorborg saw the need to cultivate women for top positions and founded the network in 2008. Each year, the group, with financial support from several companies, picks 20 promising women executives for mentoring and support.

“Working Moms,” founded in 2007, shows by its title it has some more fundamental concerns about work-life balance. Now numbering some 500, the group requires members to have one child and be working full-time. Fidar, an acronym for “Women on Boards” in German, is focused on getting more women on the supervisory boards of German companies. The group claims the 2016 introduction of a legally binding 30-percent quota for women on boards of the country’s listed companies with full co-determination on their boards.

There are also a number of networks specific to a sector or profession, such as media or lawyers. None of them believe, however, that networking alone will suffice to boost the role of women in business. Outgoing Economics Minister Brigitte Zypries put out a “manifesto” recently calling on business to promote more women, not least to fill the growing gaps in top quality management. “Without strong women in business and without their part in wealth creation, nothing in Germany will work,” she said.

Awareness of the issue is growing among men who continue to dominate top positions, but old notions die hard. One of the Merton Circle founders said the chief executive of a DAX company called her up recently to inquire if the group could take a protégée of his, a promising third-rank executive, under their wing. “At first I was speechless,” she said. “Then I laughed. Then I said no.”

Tanja Kewes is a reporter for Handelsblatt. Handelsblatt Global editor Darrell Delamaide adapted this article into English. To contact the author: kewes@handelsblatt.com.

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