We need more women at the top

16 July 2014

She is a high-ranking executive of a large concern: Marianne Heiß visited Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) to talk about her career and what has to change so that more women are appointed to management posts. She was invited to speak as part of the new Irène Joliot-Curie Program that has been established in order to promote the careers of women working in the PRISMA Cluster of Excellence.

"She knows what women need in order to be successful," claimed Helga Juli, General Manager of the Cluster of Excellence 'Precision Physics, Fundamental Interactions and Structure of Matter' (PRISMA) at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. The woman Juli is talking about is someone who has managed to make it big in the business world. Marianne Heiß is European Finance Director of the international advertising agency network BBDO. In her book "Yes She Can: The Future of Management Is Female" she encourages other women to take similar paths. In Mainz, she talked about "Women in Management Posts" and her own experiences.

"As a female CFO you are very much on your own," Heiß pointed out right at the beginning. "There are currently only very few women in equivalent posts throughout the world. In my company, I'm the only woman at the top executive level." She believes that she knows why that is. "It's not simply attributable to the way businesses are structured; sadly women have themselves to blame, too."

Women's programs without women?

Marianne Heiß came to Mainz at the invitation of Professor Concettina Sfienti. The nuclear physicist established the Irène Joliot-Curie Program in December 2013 to support women of the PRISMA Cluster of Excellence in all phases of their academic careers.

"There are thousands of different women's programs," Sfienti says. "But many simply never take off because no women ever take advantage of them. On the one hand, this is due to the fact that women often like to stay in the background. They think that if they participate in such programs they are admitting that they have a problem. They don't like to do that. And, on the other hand, it is due to their self-perception. In the sciences, women often think that they have to work on concrete projects and that they don't need to acquire soft skills."

Thus, Sfienti resolved to contact her female colleagues primarily through social media. "I tell them: Okay, if you want to stay an anonymous and silent reader, you can do so." In her blog, Sfienti writes about problems that women are confronted with in the academic world and during their careers. She gives tips for a wide variety of aspects and responds to the suggestions of her readers.

Role models are needed

One wish that was expressed already during the official inauguration ceremony for the Irène Joliot-Curie Program in December 2013 was to invite women like Heiß who occupy top posts. Sfienti continues to focus primarily on using social media for the program, which she believes offers the best potential. But after having attended Heiß' lecture, she said: "I'm impressed by her. It is important that we have the opportunity to meet people like her. We women often lack female role models. That's why we decided to name our program after Irène Joliot-Curie, the daughter of Marie Curie. She had a role model in her mother."

Heiß' own conviction is that "almost all top male executives have the classic outlook when it comes to gender roles. They have a wife who stays at home and looks after the kids. They simply can't grasp the idea of a woman working an 80-hour week being out on business most of the time."

Heiß also claimed that "male-run businesses are more egocentric and narcissistic – they lack vision and foresight. Performance is improved when there are more women in management. Mixed teams are ideal; profits increase and the share value goes up."

So, why do top management teams so rarely consist of a combination of men and women? Heiß herself endorses many of the current views as to why this should be so. Gender perception, as mentioned above, plays a role. In general, groups of males are inclined to gather more men around them. "And, of course, one of the main problems in Germany is that there are not enough places for our children in kindergartens. There is no other country in Europe with that problem."

What is success?

But Heiß also had harsh words for women themselves. "We have to learn to face up to competition from men as well as from other women." For her, women need to develop more backbone and she also thinks women should be encouraged to form networks. "We don't have enough hunger for power - I don't consider striving for power to be something that is necessarily negative."

Her list of advice is long. Women should emphasize their strengths rather than their weaknesses. "Women also have to learn how to deal with certain old-established patriarchal rituals. So, why not join in when everyone goes off for a drink after a conference? I use it as an opportunity to make contacts and gather information."

Not every woman wants to go that way and there is no problem with that. "What is success?," asked Heiß and immediately gave the answer: "It is not simply career and salary; whoever feels comfortable in their role and is enjoying life is in the right place." If that 'right place' is at home looking after a family, that is perfectly fine. What is important for women is that they don't run away from challenges.

Sfienti sees it very similarly: "I have to be absolutely committed to science if I want to make a career in this field." She also agrees with Heiß in many other aspects. "Women always make the same mistake when it comes to how they present themselves. They bring their weaknesses to the forefront." It is precisely this problem that Sfienti addresses in her blog.

The postdoc problem

Sfienti is also concerned about the specific problems associated with her discipline. "Only a few women study our subject," she says. "We do not really have role models yet." One of the major stumbling blocks on the academic career path for woman is the first year after completing a doctorate. "That is a very difficult phase in terms of career planning. You have to decide where you want to apply, maybe even abroad." But at this point, many women start to ask themselves how they will cope with a having a career and a family and wonder whether they will have to choose one or the other.

It annoys Sfienti that this either/or question is at the core of the problem in a country like Germany. "There are simply not enough non-professorial teaching posts for women. If you want to be a professor, there are some things you will just have to forgo. But as an academic and non-professorial faculty member it can be easier to combine work and family. In Germany, the number of non-professorial teaching posts is being systematically reduced. This is something I simply do not understand."

Sfienti has a lot in mind for the Irène Joliot-Curie Program. She wants to open it up for women outside PRISMA and she wants to enter into partnerships with other universities. The idea is to form networks. "I don't want this program to be just another women's program. Either we seriously promote the concept of providing career support to women or we can simply forget about the whole thing," she insists.