Parameters of change – equality as a success factor

[This text is the slightly edited manuscript of my keynote at the conference „Fremtidsperspektiver I Dansk Musikliv – Met Diversitet Som Katalysator For At Finde Nye Veje“ on December 1st, 2015, at Dansehallerne, Copenhagen, hosted by the Danish Arts Foundation.]


Venue: Dansehallerne, Copenhagen

Ever since I finished university, I’ve been working in digital businesses. As a matter of fact, these businesses had always been business-to-consumer platforms which were mainly directed at female target groups.

My first job was at, which is still the leading German website for parents and parents-to-be. It’s based on a large community using traditional online message boards for exchange. And although I had been CEO of that company most of the time, everybody on the team had to help out in the community on a regular basis.

So every now and then I was in charge of the message boards, where literally thousands of women, who desperately wanted to have a child or had already been pregnant, exchanged their best practice and shared their experience. They even met up online at the week-ends to take collective pregnancy tests, in real time!

So apart from the fact that I gathered an enormous amount of theoretical experience and some comparatively absurd anecdotes in that particular field, I became quite an expert on how these women felt.

This – and my experience on the employer’s side with many female and part-time employees – has laid the foundation for why I’m trying to make a contribution and why I am supporting change at this very end of the public dialogue: gender equality.

There are many positive examples from the digital industry to get rid of issues that have become huge obstacles to innovation, prosperity and working culture. But before I’m going to elaborate on this, I have to cast a light on what is currently happening in enterprise Germany.

We’ve all heard about the Volkswagen scandal. Not only did the company disappoint its customers by cheating on tests of their Diesel engines. Volkswagen has also become a kind of prototype of the male-only culture in large companies which leads to failure.

And it hurts, too. Volkswagen is the largest corporation within the largest industry sector in Germany and thus represents German engineering like probably no other player. And that means a significant damage and a huge blow to the claim of „Made in Germany“.

When the Volkswagen company announced its new CEO, the former Porsche CEO Müller – even his name couldn’t be more German -, I happened to watch the press conference live on television.

What I saw, really struck me. Five grey-haired, comparatively old men were sitting next to each other, like robots: communicating what their legal offices had worked out and orchestrated. This was not only an individual case, this was much more. It represents what is going wrong in organizations, large and small.

To me, one thing was more than evident: the lack of diversity. It is probably futile to raise the question whether the Volkswagen scandal would have happened with more women in charge (as it has been with the „Lehman Sisters“ discussion).

The problem goes much deeper. It’s about men who believe it’s their natural right to lead and to decide and to put whole companies and industries in jeopardy by playing in their boys’ clubs. And there is no sense of wrongdoing. Not at all.

On the contrary: When the former Porsche CEO Wendelin Wiedeking – at least his name is a bit more creative – had to appear in court because of alleged market manipulations, he didn’t show any accountability. Instead, he claimed to have been „a visionary“.

I, for my part, would like to quote the recently deceased German ex-chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who once said: „If you have visions, go and see a doctor!“

Let’s move on to why I’m convinced that change can come from best practices from all kinds of industries. I’ve been working for digital business-to-consumer platforms in the food and parenting area. As a boss, I’ve always been dependent on strong technical teams. Software engineers were very, very hard to recruit and even harder to keep. And so the teams were hardly diverse.

The average German software engineer was kind of a cliché: young, overweight men, eating Pizza and jelly beans, collecting items from their favorite cartoon movie (mainly superheroes) and, most importantly, telling me constantly what was possible and what we definitely should avoid doing. Most of them were geniuses, but that also meant they were sometimes impossible to control.

What I was looking for: female engineers. Why? Because we needed a technical female perspective on what we were doing. After all, we are addressing female target groups.

Especially at my second challenge as CEO of, Europe’s largest digital cooking and recipe platform, I didn’t want to rely on male-only approaches to User Experience, Service Design and Frontend Development. But I also wanted female software engineers to have a diverse team setup.

But: I failed. We only had one woman on team. There simply was no availability at the time. The good news is: Times are changing – slowly, but constantly. Female engineers are no sensation anymore.

There are a lot of initiatives in order to get more women into the so-called MINT subjects at university: in English, they’re called STEM:

  • science
  • technology
  • engineering and
  • mathematics

I came across great approach to attract very young children to things like software and coding in October at a conference in Berlin: the Ada Lovelace Festival Conference. It was a conference for women in tech.

On stage, there was Linda Liukas, a real whizz-kid from Finland with so many ideas and an overwhelming presence. Linda is a programmer, storyteller and illustrator from Helsinki and has created a book called „Hello Ruby“.

Ruby is a small girl with a huge imagination, and the determination to solve any puzzle. „Hello Ruby“ introduces programming without requiring a computer at all. The point of the book isn’t to teach children a programming language, but programming concepts.

Kids are being introduced to the fundamentals of computational thinking, like how to break big problems into small ones, create step-by-step plans, look for patterns and think outside the box through storytelling. I love the idea behind it!

More examples: „App Camps“ is a German initiative that offers schools programming classes. It’s targeted at the very problem that a lot of teachers are lacking IT knowledge. And while happening in a school environment, students get in touch with potential job perspectives, too. A third example would be „Startup Teens“, where some female founders share their entrepreneurial knowledge with teenagers in order to motivate founders, and especially female ones.

Which leads me to an interim conclusion: We need at least two things in order to attract more women to fields with a lack of female work force:

  • role models, like Linda Liukas
  • stories and storytelling, like Ruby

A third conclusion I’d like to make refers to another layer which is added to the initiatives I’ve mentioned before. Not only do we need educational approaches to reach out to girls who might be interested in technology and coding etc. What is also needed, are networks for women.

Networks, where all the ideas come together, where personal stories can be shared and where new potentials can be developed in an atmosphere of trust. And that sometimes needs men to stay away. At least for the time being.

In the technology sector, there are a lot of very interesting female networks: Geekettes, Women Who Code, Digital Media Women… to name just a few. They’ve become very active, extremely well organized and dedicated to their mission: bring together highly motivated women, share examples and best practice and support each other’s careers.

And this has resonated in the music industry, too: „Music Industry Women“ is the name of the network what has been established in order to make women more visible, provide mentoring and work on the goal of bringing more women into leadership positions in the industry – as well as motivate female founders to start their own businesses. Their partner initiative at AIM, the Association of Independent Music in the UK is simply called „Women in Music“.

In the technology sector, women’s networks have also started to play an important role as curators of panels and conferences. For example, the Hamburg Reeperbahn Festival Conference gets tremendous support from the Digital Media Women in organizing the speakers and the programme. There has been a significant increase in female speakers ever since.

But that also needs the support of men. I, for instance, usually avoid pannels and conferences with a bad female proportion. I even confront some organizers with their lack of female speakers. (You can do that, too: either use the Gender Avenger App or let The Hoff do the work for you: pointing out that #allmalepanels aren’t ok).

The reaction is always the same – very lame. They pretend to have tried hard, but there are no female speakers in this very topic and so on and so forth… That’s ridiculous. It’s 2015, and there are so many excellent female experts out there – on virtually any topic! You just need the ambition to find them, invite them and put them on stage!

I’ve recently read an article in a German Magazine for Design Creatives on why women are underrepresented in leadership positions in creative businesses. The text started with the observation, that it is still fact that mothers are the ones working in part-time jobs. So far, so well-known, so not new at all. But what struck me here, was the second part of the argumentation: It stated that „by working part-time, mothers are giving up their own career.“

The question that immediately came to my mind was: Why is part-time work an obstacle to making a career? And more than that: What do we mean by „a career“? And finally, the most important question in this context: Why are quantitative parameters still the one and only base of assessment whether or not someone can have a career? In other words: Why are we still being judged by the amount of time that we put into our professional work rather than by the results we achieve?

This would be a topic for another talk or article. But let’s keep one factor on our list: flexibility. And I don’t mean theoretically. Flexibility counts most, when unforeseen things are happening.

For example, when it’s about parental leave and how to organize the return of the mother or father to the company. At this point, employers have the chance to do so many things wrong and only a few things right. The better they react and perform in this situation, the more loyal an employer will be towards her or his boss and towards the company. Always remember: loyalty ain’t a one-way-street!

I was being confronted with the need to find flexible solutions when two of my female department members at urbia told me that they were pregnant – within only a few days. And, of course, we made it: by working together and by showing that we wanted to find a solution by any means.

I would now like to provide you with some insights on how the debate on gender equality in Germany is being conducted at the moment.

Some people believe that in the field of gender equality – or gender imbalance rather -, Germany is significantly lagging behind some other countries. They even state that we in Germany are 20 years behind the Netherlands and 20 more behind Sweden. That sounds like an awful lot, doesn’t it?

So my personal filter bubble has the effect that I am experiencing quite exciting times by following the public debate as well as change in German society, while others with an external view on what is going on in Germany – like people in Denmark for instance – might come to a totally different judgment by observing that we are still stuck in debates that other countries have long been able to solve.

And that was only one reason why I was looking forward to coming to Copenhagen to understand to what extent and how Denmark has already solved problems of gender imbalances in contrast to my own country. So thanks again for having me.

Let me introduce one, if not the key factor for equality. It’s equal pay. Have you ever heard of the campaign #EqualPayDay?

Equal pay is key to gender equality

Equal pay is key! (Photographer: Franz Pfluegl)

According to the central statistics agency im Germany, in 2014, women earned 21.6 % less than men. If you transfer this data, women work 79 days a year without getting paid. 79 days! And that is why Equal Pay Day 2016 will be the 19th of March. Up until then, women wil have worked for free. It’s a statement and it supports the campaign against this kind of discrimitation.

Let’s also have a deeper look at the question of discrimination. A lot of people, or should I say a lot of men, in Germany are fully convinced that women have the same rights as well as the same opportunities as themselves. And I was very happy about a blogpost by Adam Grant, who is a Wharton professor and New York Times Writer, with the title: „Dear Men, Wake up and Smell the Inequality.“

In this blogpost, Grant refers to the United States, but I am sure that many of the issues he was addressing are true for Germany and large parts of Europe, too. He argues that there must be a reason why men don’t see that at every level of corporate America, women are less likely to advance than men. So Grant offers his two hypotheses.

Number one: „Men are stupid.“

„[F]or the past 20 years, 318 Darwin Awards have recognized people who removed themselves from the gene pool through “idiotic behaviors”—like the terrorist who mailed a letter bomb without enough postage, and when it was returned to sender, opened it. It turns out that more than 88% of the Darwin winners were male.“

As the researchers write, “This finding is entirely consistent with male idiot theory… and supports the hypothesis that men are idiots and idiots do stupid things.”

But, of course, not all men are idiots. What accounts for the rest of the ignorance? Which takes us to theory number two:

„Men are blind.“

And that means that there simply is evidence, that women are still being discriminated and face less opportunities in corporate environments than their male counterparts. Full stop!

So instead of ignoring the facts, men could also (and should!) become advocats for gender equality. Why? For several reasons. First of all, because women’s equality is directly linked to Europe’s overall well-being. Only by overcoming gender inequality can we truly lay the foundations for the continent’s future.

Secondly, because men should acknowledge, that whatever is achieved in the so-called female issue, is in their own interest. They profit hugely and widely from things like compatibility, reduced working hours, childcare institutions, public funding, equal wages, new work, next economy… you name it, the list goes on and on.

So what can be done to achieve equality? Step one is to acknowledge

  • that there is a state of constant inequality and
  • that the common goal is to end this and to start the journey towards full equality.

In Germany, we had quite a lively and public debate about the quota and whether or not it should be introduced for the advisory boards of the Top 30 German companies which are publicly listed at the stock exchange.

Personally, I wasn’t a supporter of quotas. For the simple reason that I believe equality should be a higher goal and thus shouldn’t be enforced by law. Equality, to me, should be a commitment rather than an obligation.

But I changed my mind during the public debate. Even though 30 percent women in German advisory boards among the top 30 companies only account for approximately 130something women, the discussion in gerneral had a huge political impact. And: The media covered every perspective so that the idea behind it – equality! – was slowly but constantly working through the institutions.

Again: A quota isn’t the solution, but it can trigger initiatives, change the way of thinking and enable certain parts of society to get change on the way…

A few words on reactions from the male side. Many of my male colleagues and friends are more or less scared. They fear their privileges being swept away. They think their own career opportunities will get out of balance because of the promotion of women. Well, what can I say.

Welcome to the 21st century, guys! Maybe there are certain setups within which it is harder for some men to get a promotion because of their female colleagues being preferred. Again: welcome to a new age of gender equality.

Women want to have 50 % of the cake, not 100 % as us men took it for granted for centuries.

The times they are changing for good. I believe that we can tolerate some minor disadvantages in the process of achieving a fairer level in the big picture.

To put it in a more poetic way:

The path towards gender equality is paved with whining men fearing the loss of privileges the’ve never been entitled to!

Here, again, are my ten parameters to drive change towards equality in Europe:

  1. We need (female) role models. Such idols will attract young women to jobs and topics which were originally male-dominated.
  2. We need good stories and storytelling. It has to sound interesting, cool, püromising… for women to focus on something that superficially seen is a men’s thing.
  3. Best-practices from other industries can be a great inspiration. Why shouldn’t things or initiatives from the digital or technological sector not work in the music industry, too?
  4. Flexibility is important, especially when things are going rough. Make up your mind where you can support women in your job environment. Try an empathic approach while acknowledging obstacles and help to overcome them.
  5. Equal pay is the key factor towards equality in general. There simply is no reason why equal work shouldn’t result in equal wages.
  6. Quotas can have a political impact. Sometimes you need to back an idea by some numbers in order to convince a broader public.
  7. Leadership must support both: equality and diversity. It should be every boss‘ principal goal to support equality and to aim for dibversity as a key factor for success.
  8. Female issues = male issues. Don’t be afraid of „the f-word“. Throw in your power and your ambition and get behind the ideas and values initiated by the female movement.
  9. Europe’s future depends on gender balance. We should all try to make this contintent both modern and successful. Equality is the foundation for all of this.
  10. Network! Women need to support each other in a secure environment with an open mindset. But there should be a time when men are allowed back in – rather sooner than later.

I wish you best of success. Not only for this event, but for your important work out there. The future is in our hands and equality should be the primary goal of us all.

Thank you very much.

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