Gender diversity in the German legal market: the insider perspective – a roundtable discussion

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This online magazine not only covers aspects of business law. From time to time we also examine law from a business perspective, which means we take an open view to fundamental developments within the legal market. One topic we have wanted to explore is diversity, so we initiated a roundtable discussion to find out what is really going on in the German market. We invited the following high-level participants to speak with Thomas Wegerich, Editor of Business Law Magazine: Dr. Claudia Milbradt, Partner, Clifford Chance; Christiane Dahlbender, Associate General Counsel, Mars Europe; Martina Seidl, General Counsel, Fujitsu Technology Solutions; Severin Löffler, Assistant General Counsel, Microsoft; and Wolf Kahles, Head of HR in Germany, Clifford Chance.

With regard to diversity in the German legal market, where do we stand today?

Dahlbender: I think we are far behind other countries, especially if we take a look across the border to France. From my point of view, company management is in charge to create better working conditions and career options for women.

Kahles: That’s true to some extent. But diversity is, of course, handled differently in different countries. If you take a look at law firms in Germany, you have to say: Quite a bit has already been done. On the other hand, law firms tend to be conservative and do take a somewhat reserved position regarding cultural changes and new and innovative concepts about working.

Milbradt: I think you need to properly organize the workload to enable women to combine an ambitious career with a family life.

Seidl: Actually, I would take this even one step farther: The work environment should be organized in a way that makes a work-(family) life balance achievable for male and female employees. In job interviews I can see that work-life balance is becoming more and more important not only for women but for young men, too. They want to take on their share of family duties in addition to an ambitious career. An in-house role seems to be still quite attractive in this regard. From my experience, many in-house legal departments have actually achieved a rather good gender balance at the team level. At team-manager levels, however, the ratio usually changes significantly, and top-level female general counsels are still extremely rare.

Mr. Löffler, do you agree?

Löffler: I think we have improved on diversity, but we still have a ways to go. Let’s face it, in the IT industry we lack talent: In Germany alone, 41,000 positions are open since we don’t find the highly skilled people we need. We need to encourage women to work in this sector, otherwise we lose against competition. Wolf Kahles mentioned innovative concepts: This is crucial. We need to approach such concepts with an open mind – and quickly.

Milbradt: Things change slowly, but you can see some progress. It’s also, however, about the company changing its behavior concerning organization of the workload which helps women combine an ambitious career with a family perspective.

Ms. Dahlbender and Ms. Seidl, do you have any encouraging news from your companies that you can report?

Dahlbender: I agree with Ms. Milbradt. Organization is the key. Keeping your team and your different tasks running makes all the difference. This includes working part-time and having both a demanding job and a family and kids. Let me add one more point: One should not underestimate the importance of role models – women who have made it to the top in their respective companies.

Seidl: That’s exactly right. Plus, from my experience it is most important to have a counterpart at the next management level who really wants to see diversity happen.

What is your human resources’ perspective on all this, Mr. Kahles?

Kahles: We’ve mentioned the tricky aspect of working part-time in a very challenging and demanding business like a law firm or a legal department. I think even today part-time in the legal market still has some stigma attached to it. Why don’t we talk about “mobile working” instead? Let’s face it, that’s the reality. Every one of us works from home over the weekend, but when it comes to practicing that on one day between Monday and Friday, it’s a catastrophe.

Would you agree, Ms. Milbradt?

Milbradt: Yes. Prejudices linked to certain wording such as part-time form a stumbling block for women. The fact is that the ambitious women working part-time, often work more than their agreed percentage.

Does all this sound good enough to you, Ms. Dahlbender, Ms. Seidl and Mr. Löffler?

Dahlbender: I believe that we will only see positive developments regarding diversity if employers and employees discuss this topic with the shared goal of creating a working atmosphere that enables rather than interferes with different concepts of life and different career options.

Löffler: Flexibility and trust, that’s what really matters. We at Microsoft don’t even care about who is working from where: It could be the office, it could be at home or it could be on the road. Employees are even very free in deciding when they work. All we expect from our colleagues is that they are available for their individual work – but there’s no need to be physically present and not necessarily from 9 to 5. Modern technology is the key to that. If you can work in a paperless environment, if all information is available from your laptop and if conference calls are easy to set up, you can work almost everywhere and anytime. This gives you much freedom for your professional and private life.

Seidl: I fully agree. The work needs to get done – it’s as simple as that. And in most situations for a lawyer, it doesn’t really matter where the work gets done. Modern technology is a great enabler in this regard. With a laptop and mobile phone in your handbag, you can basically carry your “office” to wherever you need to be.

Does this fit into the typical law firm ­culture of always being (or pretending to be) present in the office?

Milbradt: It’s not a question of being present in the office. It’s a question of building trust with the client and ensuring that things are done when needed. This requires proper communication.

Kahles: I do agree that this “culture” you mentioned does not necessarily lead to doing the job effectively.

Now I would like to touch on a different point. May I ask you, Ms. Milbradt, Ms. Dahlbender and Ms. Seidl: Do women lead their teams differently compared with men?

Dahlbender: To be quite honest, I think it’s pretty simple: Either you are good and able or you aren’t. Irrespective of if we are talking about men or women

Milbradt: That’s certainly true; but given my own experience, women are often more focused and very efficient in their working style. On the other hand, women in leadership roles do have a better understanding for the different needs in their team when it comes to organizing things as flexibly as possible.

Seidl: From my experience, I’d say no. In my leadership team, I have three male and two female team leaders (who worked part-time in their leadership role when their children were very young) and I cannot see a difference in leadership that I would say was gender based. The difference stems from individual personalities.

Let’s now have a look into the crystal ball: What has to be done to improve diversity in the German legal market?

Löffler: Change the culture and let employees have more say in deciding when and where they work! Trust them.

Milbradt: Women have to find and go their own way. They should not always try to anticipate what others might expect from them. Be resilient and ­self-confident.

Dahlbender: Courage! That’s what it takes.

Kahles: Global firms should be more optimistic and confident in trying new models rather than finding reasons not to change anything.

Seidl: We need managers who, based on personal conviction, are keen to build diverse (leadership) teams. We also need women who have the will and courage to take on an ambitious career.

That sounds rather optimistic and straightforward, but: Does anyone think we need a women’s quota to take diversity to the next level?

Kahles: Well, maybe just for an interim period until we have achieved a level playing field for women and men. In reference to the conservative culture [we discussed earlier]: When it comes time for change, you need to have a route, you need to have demand – both internally and externally – and you need to have someone to drive change. That might be a quota, that might be clients, that might be the next cohort of future colleagues or your supervisory board, and the like. But you have to be encouraged to start the journey.

Löffler: I don’t think a women’s quota is a solution. We need to concentrate on the change of working conditions for women (and also for men!) in order to enable them to balance their professional life with their families and their private lives. Certainly, we need the proper infrastructure like kindergartens and the like, but, more importantly, we need a different cultural approach in companies. Flexible work models are crucial to advance diversity and to attract talent.

Milbradt: Just one rhetorical question: Does anyone want to be seen as the woman who was lucky enough to get a certain position because it was reserved by a quota?

Dahlbender: Yes and no. A women’s quota might create pressure that could be helpful to achieve a better standard when it comes to diversity topics, but a woman with the right characteristics will always make it to the top.

Seidl: At the moment, I would say “unfortunately, yes.” That’s because the change in mindset is too slow. However, I strongly believe that in 10 years’ time people will see diversity and flexible work-life-­balance models as normal as we see equal voting rights for men and women today.

Thank you very much for sharing your ideas. We’ll certainly continue to keep an eye on the development of diversity in Germany.

The interview was conducted by Professor Dr. Thomas Wegerich, Editor of Business Law Magazine.


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