Wiebke Ankersen (SHE/HER)

We need to get better at evaluating people regardless of their gender and recognizing their potential. We need to get away from these traditional role models and expectations. Only when we truly assess men and women according to their individual abilities and performance can there be equal opportunities.
Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Wiebke Ankersen, I have a PhD in Scandinavian Studies and have been running the AllBright Foundation, based in Berlin and Stockholm, together with my co-director Christian Berg since 2016. Two countries, one challenge: more women and diversity in management positions in companies. Our goal is to create fair career opportunities for men and women and to achieve better business results with mixed, modern management teams.

What does diversity mean to you?

Our society has long been diverse; more than half are women, more than a quarter are Germans with foreign roots and around a fifth come from East Germany. But they are all significantly underrepresented in management and decision-making positions in our country. We already have diversity, what is missing is equal opportunities.

This is exactly what our foundation strives for: that everyone has the same opportunity to show what they can do and actively shape the economy and society.

If you could change one thing in Germany immediately, what would it be?

If I could change something in Germany with the snap of my fingers, it would be the expectations towards men and women. I would like us to have the same expectations of both genders, be it in terms of their roles in the family or in the world of work. It’s about raising awareness of these inequalities and actively working to change thought patterns and prejudices. And it is important to me that not only are the expectations the same, but that we also judge them equally. At the moment, there is still a clear difference, which is one of the central obstacles on the way to our goal: ensuring that everyone has the same opportunities to develop their skills and do what they really want to do.

Why is the economy in particular so homogeneous and does not reflect the cross-section of the population?

Historically, we come from a society that is led and shaped by men. This is the case in all countries, but Germany is finding it particularly difficult to change this. Progress in the economy is even slower than in other areas of society – the fact that it is not subject to democratic processes certainly plays a role here. Transparency is a decisive factor for companies. Companies that are listed on the stock exchange and therefore have to be extremely transparent in their decisions and appointments are already the most advanced when it comes to diversity in management positions. They are exposed to public scrutiny and criticism. Family businesses, which are much less transparent and do not have to publicly document the decisions they make, are lagging far behind. There are fewer shareholders involved, and if the family does not consider equal opportunities to be an important issue, not much happens in this area.

How can this change?

Social pressure is the strongest lever, just like with sustainability. In Germany, an awareness is only just beginning to emerge that something is wrong when in 2023 almost only middle-aged West German men will be in decision-making and management positions. Although a particularly large number of highly educated women work in Germany, they do not reach the upper levels. This is because the higher you rise in the hierarchy, the more the objective selection criteria disappear. Instead, gut instinct is becoming increasingly important in personnel decisions. People talk about personality, but selection is often based on similarity. The “Thomas” (this is the most common name on German management boards) instinctively selects other “Thomases” for his teams with whom he feels particularly comfortable and who he believes can do what he himself can do. This is a human mechanism, but it must be interrupted if change is desired. If you only look for “Thomas”, you won’t find “Sabine” (the most common female name). It simply takes more of them to change this perception and, based on experience, people will trust Sabine to do what they trust Thomas to do.

How do you as a foundation tackle mechanism like this?

We raise public awareness. We raise awareness, put our finger in the wound and show why progress in Germany is so slow. We analyze the mechanisms and name them so that we can say specifically what needs to be done. We call loudly for change and work to ensure that the issue of diversity remains on the agenda and becomes a social priority. To this end, we monitor companies and repeatedly bring facts and figures into the debate. It tends to be emotional and dogmatic, and we want to put it on a factual and professional footing so that people can talk in a solution-oriented way about what actually needs to be done to move forward. We also specifically train managers in how to lead more inclusively. Ultimately, of course, we should have more diversity and more women in management positions, and that is how we measure ourselves.

You said that Germany tends to change more slowly than other countries. What progress have you seen in Germany since you started, and where do we still have a lot of learning and catching up to do?

Public awareness of equal opportunities, diversity and representation is only just beginning to develop in Germany. Compared to the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian countries, we are still quite far behind in this country, the debate has been going on there for much longer and it is already anchored in people’s minds in a completely different way. In Germany, we still often hear that appointments are based solely on qualifications. Many people who say this actually still believe that this is the case; the awareness that many other factors play a role in who we trust to do what is only slowly emerging.

What exactly is the situation on German management boards?

We can see that the pace of increasing the proportion of women in top management positions has increased significantly. Progress is being made, something is happening. Many women have been recruited in recent years. In our last census in September 2023, we found that 37% of new recruits to management boards last year were women. Previously, there was mainly movement in DAX companies, but now there are also medium-sized and small companies. This means that career opportunities for women have improved in recent years. However, many companies are satisfied with just one woman on the board. However, some board teams are quite large, so a single woman can only be the beginning and companies must not let up in their efforts to increase diversity.

Do you also measure additional diversity criteria?

We monitor the composition of the Management Board and also the composition of new recruits to see if there are any signs of change. We look at age, gender, education and place of training, whether in East Germany, West Germany or abroad. In this way, we can determine, for example, that people who were socialized in East Germany only account for around three percent of board positions. Nevertheless, when it comes to new recruits, we can see that boards are becoming more female and more international overall.

You sometimes hear that women quickly give up their board positions. Is this image in the media correct?

No, there is a rather skewed perception. We looked at the data because there were a lot of departures of women from boards last year. We looked at how many men and how many women resigned from the board in less than three years (the usual first term) and in less than five years. In fact, in percentage terms, more men left boards early than women. Women are in the spotlight to such an extent that every departure is visible and commented on. When a woman leaves, she is always perceived as a woman and not as an individual. This regularly leads to questions from the media as to why women fail, and that annoys me. Women don’t fail more often than men. Sometimes they leave because they are not allowed to do what they were hired to do, or because they see better opportunities elsewhere, or because they move up abroad. My hope is that this awkward question will end when hopefully at some point there are so many women on boards that you can no longer manage to keep them all in the spotlight like this.

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