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"It's a question of boosting the best"

Photo | iStockPhoto.com / SteveLuker, piovesempre, drbimages, jhorrocks
Marginal Column
Photo | Prof. Désirée H. Ladwig, Ph. D.

Prof. Désirée H. Ladwig, Ph.D. is professor for personnel management, international management and general business administration at the Lübeck Technical College.

From 1997 to 2000 she managed the international experts’ network – “WorkLifeBALANCE” – set up by the European Commission. In her function as corporate consultant she focuses on human resources, organization, and gender and diversity management.

At the same time she heads up a research projecton patterns in technical careers, sponsored by the German Ministry of Research and Education. She initiated the Genderdax Community, which highlights companies that specifically promote women.

More women in management, broader cultural diversity – in many firms there’s a mood of new departures. But at the same time, this subject triggers fear. Professor Désirée H. Ladwig, an economist whose research centers on personnel, gender and diversity – and international management – responds to the claims most frequently put forth by skeptics.


Thesis 1: anyone who strives to achieve gender diversity will lose sight of the merit principle.

This is a non-risk. Diversity – regardless of whether with a view toward gender or culture – is simply a “must” for companies seeking to serve world markets. Only in this way can companies meet global market requirements. Many are now trying to, but they run into difficulties. And that’s hardly any wonder. Homogenous teams are easier to manage since there will usually be fewer points of contention. But to respond directly to this claim: The merit principle by no means contradicts gender diversity; if I want to bring together the best team available, then I cannot pass over people from various groups. The danger of losing sight of any given individual’s actual potential is slight. The systems used to evaluate technical specialists have in the meantime become very sophisticated and transparent. The evaluation criteria will, of course, have to take account of diversity concepts. You simply have to search in a different way if you wish to have a team that is diverse in its composition.

Thesis 2: advantages for women mean disadvantages for men.

Promoting one group by no means implies discriminating against the other. It is essential that ability and expertise be properly evaluated and that the best people be advanced. But it’s not just a question of gender equality. The company has to identify, recruit, retain and develop the best minds. If, for example, I have a management team made up of nothing but middle-aged German men with similar educational backgrounds, then they will quickly reach consensus. But you might well have a serious problem here. Since they fit together so well in terms of how they think, then certain developments might simply be beyond their grasp.

This was the case in the New Economy, for instance. For many managers, developments in the Internet market were not on their radar screen because their own experiences were too far distant from that world. When they finally realized the potentials, a sort of panic broke out; companies invested and bought without prior research. What ensued is well known. We all live in a fast-paced world. That is why companies need people with the widest backgrounds, so as to take account of the largest possible number of aspects. What’s more, companies practicing management diversity can often forecast their customers’ purchasing decisions better. Executive career planning is quite common but career planning for technical people would also make sense for many companies, especially since such planning also offers additional development options for women.

Thesis 3: More women in the board room means more women who concentrate on their careers. The national birthrate could thus decline and subsequently aggravate the shortage of skilled labor.

Many female college graduates elect not to have children so that they can focus on their careers. That is already a reality and that is a major problem for society. But countries like Sweden show us that it is possible to reconcile career and family responsibilities. Models are available, but businesses will have to embrace them more actively. The entire culture of “office work” is outdated for many sectors of business. Young people, in particular, want to be more independent in their time planning. They respond favorably to management by setting targets. This can also be of benefit to the company. It makes it easy for employees in Germany to consult with colleagues in the U.S.A. in the evening, or Singapore early in the morning, from home, using video conferencing.

Thesis 4: Many companies that are actively promoting women right now are only doing this because of public pressure. Once the topic loses some of its popularity, everything will return to the same old situation.

I think that’s quite probable – and regrettable. I fear that those in charge would rather hire male engineers from foreign countries and teach them their own language rather than hiring female engineers locally. Language problems appear to be the lesser evil in many companies. Working with women is generally associated with having to deal with new communications patterns and leadership concepts. That’s why I believe that we will have to simply push women into management positions for the next ten years. Mixed management teams will become perfectly normal at every level and corporate cultures and time management expectations will then change fundamentally.