It is clear that Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, thinks the struggle for equal rights is an important issue. When attendees at the recent Women20 summit in Berlin were asked if they viewed themselves as feminists, her hand shot up immediately – in contrast to the more hesitant German chancellor, Angela Merkel, sitting on the podium next to her. Although Ms. Lagarde was unable to attend the first Women’s Finance Summit hosted by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) in person, she gave a keynote speech via video.
Women can play a key role in strengthening the financial sector, according to Ms. Lagarde; studies by her organization, the International Monetary Fund, or IMF, show that for each additional woman in senior management or on the executive board, a company’s return on assets increases by 0.08 to 0.13 percent. In other words, companies benefit financially by promoting women.
The problem is that in Germany women are a rare sight on the executive floors of financial institutions. There are far more women at the controls of French and British banks.
The number of women on the management boards of the 10 largest German banks is 9 percent, compared to 40 percent in Europe.
Many of the prominent speakers at the DIW conference are from abroad or have careers with foreign banks. They include Frenchwoman Sylvie Matherat, chief regulatory officer at Deutsche Bank; Dorothee Blessing, regional head for US bank JP Morgan in Germany, Austria and Switzerland; and Sabine Keller-Busse, group head of human resources at Swiss bank UBS.
Ms. Matherat believes that cultural differences are partly why women find it so difficult to attain top positions in Germany. There are many daycare options for children in France, making it easier for women to re-enter professional life. “There are fewer daycare centers in Germany, and people also don’t think it’s normal for women to return to their jobs,” she said.
“Other countries are more advanced than us,” said Ingrid Hengster, head of domestic operations for the state-owned development bank, KfW.
This is can be seen in figures provided by DHR International, a human resources consulting firm. The number of women on the management boards of the 10 largest German banks is 9 percent, compared to 34 percent in France. That compares to a 40-percent share throughout Europe and a 23-percent share across global banks, the survey showed.
“I was shocked when I saw that,” said Ms. Hengster. She was long opposed to statutory quotas but now believes that lower limits for supervisory boards are, at the very least, helpful. Women on supervisory boards can exert pressure to ensure that women are also considered for management board positions, she explained.
“With two women on the board, the men are constantly getting their names confused. But with three women, they listen. ”
Carola Gräfin von Schmettow, head of HSBC Germany, used to be a skeptic about quotas but even she now favors the use of targets, at least internally. She managed to convince her bank to reserve a minimum number of slots for women in training sessions.
However, placing one woman among a group of men isn’t necessarily the right kind of progress. Brenda Trenowden, head of European operations for the financial institution business of Australia’s ANZ bank, warned that the only woman on a board will often have her opinions dismissed as “the female perspective.”
With two women on the board, the men are constantly getting their names confused. But with three women, they listen, Ms. Trenowden explained. She heads the 30% Club, whose goal is to achieve a minimum of 30 percent females on the boards of the one hundred most important British companies. Since the campaign began in 2010, the share of women on British executive boards has increased by 12.5 percent, to 27 percent today.
Ms. Trenowden is not a fan of quotas, preferring to use indirect pressure and transparency as weapons. She once asked banks to calculate how long it takes until women are promoted from lower positions to vice presidents: It took six years longer than for male staff.
Just fulfilling the quota is not good enough, Ms. Trenowden said. Even when there are quotas, she explained, having more women in leadership positions does not appear to impact lower levels. But it is precisely the promotion of new talent that is so important.
“With female participation, you need to start at the bottom and make sure that it continues all the way to top management,” said KfW executive Ms. Hengster.
But what if nothing works and women just keep coming up against those glass ceilings in their companies? “I used to advise them to stay and fight,” said Ms. Trenowden, a Canadian citizen. But now she has developed a different attitude, realizing how valuable life is. Try and fight, she advised the female audience, to enthusiastic applause. But if nothing changes, go elsewhere.
Yasmin Osman is a financial editor with Handelsblatt’s banking team in Frankfurt. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org