FEMALE SHAREHOLDERS FOR EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES
WHEN WOMEN ASK UNCOMFORTABLE QUESTIONS
By Corinna Nohn
Despite all the quotas, women still have it hard in board rooms. Top female lawyers from all over Europe have now joined forces to bring about change in this regard. At annual general meetings of shareholders, they hit a raw nerve.
Brussels. Perhaps it is actually often due to small details, which may not always happen, that women develop similar careers to men. For example, take the story of little Vera: Her mother pressed a ball of wool and knitting needles into her hand and she tried to come to grips with the stitches. At that point, her father came into the room, snatched the needles out of her hand and yelled: “Oh no, you need to learn proper stuff!”
This little girl became the EU Commissioner for Justice, Vera Jourova. With this anecdote, the Czech has everyone laughing along with her and indeed, a few of the 160 or so women in the auditorium – with a couple of men also present – asked themselves inwardly, whether in fact someone also pushed them in the right direction during their childhood.
However, most are not sure: The knitting bobbin is not the problem – and Engineering Studies are not the solution. In the end, most of the men in charge of European car manufacturers or construction groups also once studied Law or Business Sciences. That is the subjectthis afternoon in Brussels: to answer the question why, as ever, so few executive seats are occupied by women in Europe.
The women who Vera Jourova told about her childhood and to whom she promises support in her role as Commissioner for Equality, are lawyers, managers and businesswomen: “Women Shareholders Demand Gender Equality”. Since 2009, this alliance has appeared under the leadership of Ramona Pisal, president of the ‘Deutscher Juristinnenbund’ [German Women Lawyers Association] at shareholders’‘meetings of large companies in Germany. Initially greeted with smiles by the patriarchs of big business, like Gerhard Cromme, Pisal and her sisters in arms have long been respected dialogue partners in the meetings of DAX Group personnel.
In the past year, these female shareholders have broadened the scope of the project to a European scale, supported by the Federal government and the EU. Now it deals with matters of equal opportunities in those consortiums belonging to the EURO STOXX 50.
The method has already been tested in Germany: the effect could scarcely be more evident, even from just a quick glance at the methods deployed. The women use the fact that each company shareholder has the right to speak at shareholders‘ meetings. Therefore, they buy a share certificate, they subscribe, ask questions. Objectively, but specifically: what is the proportion of women in the workforce? Or in executive positions? How has this changed? What does the management do to promote diversity?
At the final meeting of the project in Brussels these female shareholders, many of whom also belong to the European Women’s Lawyers ‘Association, EWLA, took stock of the situation. There were so many light bulb moments, because even those who demand equal opportunities are certainly not totally free of prejudice.
For example, who in Germany would spontaneously think of Spain as a pioneer in equality matters? In this regard, the country has already had a female quota of 40 percent on its supervisory boards since 2007. “Our laws are wonderful, much better than in Germany”, adds the lawyer Katharina Miller, who one day went on an internship to Spain, got married there and, meanwhile, established a specialist compliance firm in Madrid. “Unfortunately”, she says with regret, “the sanctions are lacking”.
WITH A ‘CHANSON’ FOR OBJECTIVE DEBATE
The mother of three first became active as a ‘female shareholder’ when she was on maternity leave with her second son – the baby waited outside, while she was inside and asked about the compatibility of career and family. In the past year, she has taken the podium at a shareholder meeting six times, including at Santander Bank, Iberdrola and the fashion group, Inditex.
There, she has seen what a single appearance can achieve: Afterwards the only female board director from a consortium came up to her and thanked her: “You are my heroine”, and the supplier Iberdrola, which is already a very progressive company, subsequently thanked her for her proposals and improved its family policy still further.
Female shareholders are not always given such friendly treatment. In France, for example, Nathalie Leroy took the podium at the shareholders’ meeting of the media group Vivendi in the famous ‘Olympia’ concert hall; before her, a sea of greying or balding men. “This is where France is still at“, she says laughing. What she did not find amusing at all, however, was that the crowd seemed to find her questions unimportant and, regardless, a wave of rustling and whispering rose up as soon as she started to speak.
“At that point, I thought: Oh, là là! When will I ever stand in this concert hall again? With a microphone in my hand?” and she spontaneously piped up with the familiar French song, “Où sont les Femmes?” (“Where are all the women…?”). In an instant, there was silence in the auditorium; first, the men laughed, then they listened. A moral tale, like a bit of humour, can drum up the necessary support for the issue and in so doing generate objective debate.
Humour, however, does not help all women get ahead. Katalin Prandler, coordinator of the project in Hungary, can testify to this. She has had problems on many occasions, even just to gain admission to shareholders’ meetings. There were some incredible attempts at justifying why the share certificate should not allow access, precisely on the day of the shareholders’ meeting; other consortiums intercepted her at the entrance.
“In Hungary, one hardly ever goes to these meetings. I was almost treated with suspicion because, on top of everything, I only held one share”, explained Prandler. And her questions? These were hardly taken seriously and fell on deaf ears on the executive board, even to the extent of irony: “OK, suggest a woman who should sit on this board” and this came from business groups which are active internationally and which, after all, belong the national Index Bux.
This is in no way about female shareholders making ‘purple dungarees’ confessions, although they believe questions should be asked about why half the population is so under-represented on the committees of global actors that make far-reaching decisions and influence international litigation – especially since 60 percent of all students entering university in Europe now are women. At this point we could remind ourselves, for example, that the Thyssen-Krupp Brazilian disaster was caused by a purely male and typically German management team and also that in the Volkswagen Group there are no women on the executive board. Perhaps different decisions would have been made in mixed company?
TEAR DOWN THE GLASS CEILING
However, these female shareholders reason primarily on the basis of studies which show that: mixed-gender teams work more economically, have better risk management and generate higher profits in the long term. Women’s questions also initiate a great deal of discussion about good business management. For example, as reported by the German-French Sylvia Cleff Le Divellec, who has since set herself up as an independent consultant, France has in fact the strictest laws on female quotas. Currently, companies must ensure that 20 percent of directorships are occupied by women – as from the coming year, 40 percent – and committees which fail to meet this target can have their remuneration stopped.
Even in France, Cleff Le Divellec always hears the same argument that is familiar in Germany, namely that there are simply too few competent women. “For a long time, only men were appointed here and no one questioned the decisions but now, when women are concerned and when everything takes place transparently, we are suddenly discussing: what then are the competences demonstrated by a member of the supervisory board?“ This is a discussion which is possibly already coming to the boil in Germany because, just like in France, investors in this part of the world are asking for the first time: how many mandates are actually feasible for a single individual?
It is astonishing how personally many business group leaders still take questions about women, like the British CEO who insulted the female shareholder Jackie Jones as a ‘pain in the neck’ in public – regardless of the fact that Jones is a Professor at the University of the West of England and has addressed questions of equality for over 20 years as an academic.
However, Jones has also had the experience in Great Britain and Ireland of shareholders reacting to her questions and suggestions in a very open-minded way - especially fathers who have daughters with outstanding qualifications and notice that their careers are stalled in spite of top performance, while men progress. “These fathers now see, it is still there, the glass ceiling”, says Jones. “Now they just have to get hold of the fact that it is within their grasp to tear down this ceiling”.
Angela Kolb-Janssen, Minister for Justice in Sachsen-Anhalt and therefore virtually hosting this day in Brussels, prefers to focus on legislation: she sees France, with its strict laws, as a major example. “One year after the introduction of the quotas, I noticed on a trip there how much the atmosphere has already changed and that is the main thing”.
The SPD [German Social Democratic Party] politician who represented the women shareholders’ association the previous year at the Daimler and Deutscher Telekom annual shareholders’ meetings then also invoked friendly German-French relations. While Germany has agreed to the quotas for a long time, it blocks the corresponding EU Directive over a female quota. “But perhaps President François Hollande can indeed still convince Angela Merkel to bring German regulations up to a European standard”.