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“Frauenpower” at Siemens: another crack in the glass ceiling?

November 13, 2008

Siemens’ announcement this week that it has appointed a woman to its management board has generated a loud hullabaloo in the media, with newspapers trumpeting “the womanless age at Siemens is over” and “Barbara Kux, the strong woman at Siemens.”

But how was the news of a woman’s appointment to a senior executive position deserving of a celebratory press release and the ensuing excitement? Surely in an era of equal opportunities in developed countries, such news should be commonplace.

The fact that this news is not self-evident, and that Barbara Kux was the first woman appointed to Siemens’s managing board in its 161 year history, goes to show how far we have yet to go before women are equally represented at leadership levels.

Fifty-four year old Kux , who will be responsible for Siemens’s annual global procurement of 42 billion euros ($52.02 billion), will be one of a handful of women  on  the management board of a German blue-chip company. 

German management boards are notoriously white, male and middle-aged. As a young, female journalist in Frankfurt, it is hard not to feel like the odd one out at annual general meetings and corporate events.

Earlier this year, even Siemens’ own chief executive said his company’s top management was too German, too white and too male for its own good.

“We are too one-dimensional,” Loescher told the Financial Times in an interview, publicly subscribing to the theory that a company that does not represent its customer base can not tap its full potential.

Loescher’s charge applies to most companies in continental Europe and the UK.  Still, Germany seems to be lagging in the representation of women at executive levels, and that despite usually ranking highly in wide-ranging assessments of gender equality and boasting a female chancellor. Germany ranked 11th out of 130 countries in the World Economic Forum’s latest gender gap ranking, released on Wednesday.

The think tank said that while women are reaching near-parity with their male peers in educational attainment, health and survival, they are still lagging far behind men in terms of decision-making positions, both in corporate and political careers.

“Given that women have almost closed the gap with men on health and education, it is a waste of their talents if they are not catching up in economics and politics,” said Saadia Zahidi of the World Economic Forum.

Certainly in Germany, women may be achieving top grades at university, but they account for only a quarter of Germany’s senior managers and a third of its federal lawmakers.

One of the main reasons for this is seen to be a school system that makes it hard for mothers to hold down full-time jobs, with children finishing school around lunch-time and childcare prohibitively expensive.

But what about cultural attitudes towards women at work and in positions of power – to what extent do these play a role, and can government and corporate policy change these?

Siemens this year appointed its first chief diversity officer, and it is not alone — many other companies have diversity programmes, pushing for greater representation of women and ethnic minorities within the company at all levels.

But the question remains: do such programmes contribute to closing the gender gap, or do they degrade women’s achievements? And does the excitement about Kux’s appointment to Siemens’ management board ultimately expose her as a token woman executive and a rare curiosity in a still male-dominated society?

Kux, who received an MBA from top French business school INSEAD, was previously chief procurement officer at Dutch electronics giant Philips, having also worked for Ford, Nestle and McKinsey. One wonders how she will feel this morning, upon reading in the financial papers that she has been appointed the first female executive board member of Siemens “in a landmark move to improve its diversity”.

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