Embracing Advancement

Women in BusinessWomen in Business

Women still represent a minority in management training and leadership positions even though we are undergoing cultural changes: companies and universities increasingly focus on women.

Julia Jäkel, Marissa Meyer and Sheryl Sandberg can sit back and relax. They are just in their late thirties to mid-forties and hold leadership positions at Gruner & Jahr, Google and Facebook. Their common goal: take on responsibility, make decisions.

So she does exist, the successful woman. The predominant idea seems to be that women and career do not go together – particularly in Germany. Women are underrepresented in leadership positions here; only about one fifth of the supervisory board members in publicly listed companies are females. This figure has seen a positive development. The discussion about a women’s quota has significantly increased the proportion of women. There is something in the air; society is undergoing cultural changes. Even though there are still significant differences in income between men and women and having a family is seen as an obstacle, the numbers show that qualified women are wooed and welcomed by the economy if they want to join in.

But do they want to? If you want to take on responsibility, you need the right training. Kerstin Fehre obtained a degree in Economics from HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management over ten years ago. She did not find it strange that her classmates were mostly young men. The proportion of women at the Leipzig-based business school is a mere 30 percent today. Why is that? Are jobs in business simply not attractive for women?

“People who study here want to be founders or leaders.”

“People who study at our school want to be founders or leaders,” says Martina Beermann of HHL’s Career Service. Beermann sees two reasons for this: the fear of conflicts executives face in their professional lives; Discipline and hard work do not help if the employees do not do their jobs properly. It is all about strategy and personnel management. Beermann also attests a lack of the willingness to take risks. “With us, you have to invest in your career,” she says – financially and intellectually.

Kerstin Fehre did invest. She is striving for a top-level career. She is not put off by the environment dominated by men. “I never felt left out at HHL,” she recalls. What is more, she never understood why only so very few women decide to study business. Women even have better preconditions for an academic program based on natural science; they work hard and diligently. Half of all secondary school students who pass the Abitur, the German university-entrance examination, are female; so are half of all doctoral candidates. Only afterwards, does the path become increasingly narrow. The air becomes thinner, the ceiling glass.

Many companies are committed

Throughout her entire career, Kerstin Fehre has learned a lot about internal power structures. The cultural changes must not only happen in the contracts, but in people’s heads as well. She knows from experience that one’s own communication plays an important role in this. “Women always want integrate everyone,” she says. “You do not have to get along with everyone though.” She also became what other women often find difficult: a networker. Over the years, she kept in touch with many professors and classmates from university. Now, she herself teaches and researches the causes and effects of strategic executive decisions at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. One of the focal points of her research: women in leadership positions.

The basic requirement: diversity in the upper echelons. Companies are more successful if it is not just men who make the decisions. In one of her studies, Fehre examined what companies do in practice to promote women. The result was more positive than anticipated: a large number of the enterprises that were interviewed offer specific development and promotion measures for women. This includes Girl’s Day, which more and more companies and universities organize to get girls interested in traditionally male professions, such as engineering and the natural sciences, early on.

HHL, for instance, launched a Women in Business mentoring program. Alumni become mentors for young students and accompany them throughout their time at university. They visit companies together or exchange ideas about career prospects on a regular basis. The goal is to reassure women and to encourage them on their way up the career ladder. One important point is women’s self-evaluation, which is often very critical. “We have seen that female students apply for jobs for which they are 70 to 100 percent suited. Male graduates starting their career rate themselves higher under identical conditions,” says Julia Höffner, Manager of Alumni Relations at HHL. The school organizes additional events within the framework of the Women@HHL initiative – informal get-togethers, specialized presentations, coaching sessions and Women’s Days with representatives from practice, particularly management level, HR, coaching and science.

So the topic is gaining ground, also in the professional world. A total two of thirds of all enterprises are committed to promoting women, by offering part-time work models or improving conditions to better combine kids and career, among other things, because the image of the career-driven single woman is a fallacy. According to survey by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs, the careers and résumés of women in top-level positions do not differ vastly from those of their male counterparts. The majority are married, have children, studied Economics or Law, have worked and/or lived abroad and can look back on significant professional experience.

Julia Jäkel, Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg also want to spend time with their children after hours. There is a life after work. That is a good thing and shows that, at the end of the day, it is important to conquer your weaker self, take the plunge and break out of your own comfort zone. Kerstin Fehre took this step as well. She has a daughter and is currently working on her post-doctoral degree.

Handelsblatt Business School Talk | Event

Event information: December 11, 2015, Cologne Mediapark, starting at 6.30 pm

Panel discussion on:

Membership in Executive and Supervisory Boards – Strategies for Women and Men


Dr. Werner Görg, President of the Cologne Chamber of Industry and Commerce

Dr. Kerstin Fehre, HHL alumna, Institute of Management, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

Prof. Dr. Johanna Hey, Director of the Institute of Tax Law, University of Cologne

Prof. Dr. Helga Rübsamen-Schaeff, Chair of Scientific Advisory Board, AiCuris GmbH & Co. KG

Prof. Dr. Burkhard Schwenker, Chairman of the Advisory Council, Roland Berger GmbH

Further information

» HHL Scholarship for Women in Business

» HHL Scholarship for Women in Leadership

About the Author

Lis Schulz
Online Marketing Manager at HHL