When German companies talk about 'diversity,' they only mean women

Intersectionality matters. Source: Mauritius Images

Not long ago, before I joined Handelsblatt Global, I was pitching a story on diversity in German startups to the editorial team I worked with at the time. They were a mix of white men and women. I’m also a white woman, but I was the only non-German. They stared at me with blank faces. “Vielfalt?” they asked, using the German word for diversity. “You mean women?”

In my three years living in Germany, I have lost count of how many times I have heard or seen the word Vielfalt used as a synonym for hiring or promoting more women. As in the United States, where I am from, managers, politicians and journalists pay homage to diversity constantly. But in Germany, they tend to apply this all-encompassing word only to one minority, which is actually the statistical majority.

This is a huge disservice to the many ethnic, queer, multiracial, religious and disabled people who call Germany home. Germans equate diversity with “more women” so consistently that I have come to wonder: Is hiring or promoting females just a convenient fig leaf for German companies to keep ignoring other forms of diversity? Heaven forbid they should hire more Bulgarian, Senegalese or Taiwanese employees.

I am not denying the importance of companies incorporating women, nor belittling the role women play in improving a company’s culture and diversity. I merely want to point out that when you claim to value diversity, you cannot play favorites among groups. Diversity is about more than gender.

There’s a charter for that

In 2006, Germany’s largest employers committed to making their workplaces more welcoming and open to minority groups. BASF, Siemens and the Metro Group are just a few of the more than 2,400 companies and institutions that have signed the Charta der Vielfalt, a project charged with promoting diversity in Germany. Even Chancellor Angela Merkel gave her two cents on how the project could make Germany more diverse.

Ten years on, in 2016, a report by consultancy EY showed that many of these massive corporations translated diversity to mean women’s advancement. Improvements and strategy focused predominantly on providing the flexibility parents (read: working mothers) need to manage demanding home and work schedules.

Also in 2016, Germany passed a law requiring the percentage of women on public-sector supervisory boards to be above 30 percent. By 2017, the ratio was 29.7 percent in the 424 largest public-sector companies. This law makes sense. Supervisory boards are gatekeepers. Putting women higher up translates to hiring more women further down in the hierarchy.

But at the same time, by forcing companies to meet this particular quota, the government inadvertently prioritized women over other groups. This sent a message to other minorities that they’re not equally worth having on boards, or anywhere.

Some German firms might argue that women are more than half the population and thus must be included, whereas Germany is still too homogenous to find enough minorities for top positions. Nonsense. Germany already is “multikulti,” or multicultural. German companies just can’t seem to embrace that fact.

The mosaic in the background

Today, nearly every fourth individual living in Germany, or 23.6 percent has a “migrant background,” meaning one of their parents is not German. That’s 19.3 million people. Around half of these individuals have German citizenship.

Beyond ethnicity and race, Germany has the highest number of people who identify as LGBT of all European countries – 7.4 percent – according to a survey of 12,000 Europeans in 2016.

How many queer people work in upper-level management is still unclear. Two years ago, Telekom’s Niek Jan van Damme, a former management board member in charge of business in Germany, was the first working exec of a DAX company to come out as gay. In press interviews, he insisted that he wasn’t on the board for diversity’s sake, but because of his proven track record of success. Meanwhile in the US, does anyone even care that Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, one of the most powerful companies in the world, came out as gay?

Mr. van Damme’s concern of becoming a “token” minority is common, especially in Germany. I once heard a story of a German company giving itself a pat on the back for hiring a woman with asthma. She has a disability and is female: two birds with one stone. If she had been black, it would have been the diversity trifecta.

Like most Americans, Germans by and large have good intentions. The country’s constitution says that nobody may be “discriminated against or favored” because of sex, descent, race, language, homeland, origin, faith, religion, politics or disabilities. The problem is how to turn these rights into everyday reality.

Discriminating tastes

The cold hard truth is that German firms lack racial and ethnic variety. One reason may be that some new immigrants don’t speak German well enough. But another is bias. Whether unconscious or not, biases matter, especially for companies that sign chartas with lofty ideals or welcome diverse applicants in their hiring advertisements.

In the US, it has been proven that Asian and African applicants who mask their race or “whiten” their resumes have a better chance of being interviewed, even in companies calling for diversity. Other studies have shown recruiters avoid applicants with foreign-sounding names. Here in Germany, job applicants are frequently asked to include a photo, making the situation more ripe for sexism, racism and ageism.

Against this backdrop, ensuring that German managers understand discrimination in all its forms and consequences is a good first step. So is acknowledging prejudices and cultural biases. The goal in embracing diversity is to support unique individuals without reducing them to spokespersons for their faith, race or sexual preference.

When existing power structures are slow to embrace change, legislation is necessary. But mandating diversity by law is not a cure-all, nor can it be the objective. Accepting and celebrating diversity is a long and complex journey for most societies. In Germany today, it would help if people broadened their views on what diversity even means.

Christine Coester is an editor for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author:

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