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Research Group Female Entrepreneurship

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Prof. Dr. Stephanie Birkner

Department of Business Administration, Economics and Law

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  • Women in top management positions are often perceived as “quota women”. For young women this label can sometimes be a stigma, says Stephanie Birkner, Professor of Female Entrepreneurship at the University of Oldenburg. Photograph: AdobeStock/ fotogestoeber

Women at the top

Are female quotas for companies’ supervisory boards necessary? Yes, says Stephanie Birkner, an expert on female entrepreneurship. She explains why women are less likely to found companies and whether there is such a thing as a female management style.

Are female quotas for companies’ supervisory boards really necessary? Yes, says Stephanie Birkner, an expert on female entrepreneurship. She explains why women are less likely to found new companies and whether there is such a thing as a typically female management style.

Professor Birkner, Germany has had a quota for women on supervisory boards since 2016, and companies with more than 500 employees are required to set a target percentage for women in management positions. What is your opinion of such laws?

I see these laws as a necessary evil. Research and practical experience show that diversified teams and decision-making bodies have a positive impact on social and economic developments. But these experiences don’t seem to be enough to bring about a break with traditional routines and rituals. Against this background I endorse a quota system.

Has their implementation been successful in your opinion?

I take a critical view of the way the quota regulations were introduced. Firstly, companies can set their own voluntary quota at zero percent – which sends a highly questionable message to society. Secondly, in my view supplementary measures aimed at making people aware of unconscious biases are still lacking. This means that many people perceive and assess the same managerial behaviour differently depending on whether it comes from a woman or a man. A quota can only develop its full impact if the women it serves to promote are not limited in their scope of action by such biases.

What other obstacles exist?

For young women, being labelled as a “quota woman” is too often a stigma rather than an accolade. Another important point in my view is that female junior staff also have to assume “quota functions” in addition to all the other tasks they have: for example, they are often appointed to management bodies simply to fulfil a certain female quota. In order for them to have sufficient capacity left for their day-to-day business I think their workload needs to be eased, for example by giving them the option to delegate certain tasks. I also consider it essential for young women to receive comprehensive support from an early stage, so that the additional tasks aren’t shouldered only by the few women who have managed to break through the “glass ceiling” so far. 

What reasons do you see for the fact that women still rarely launch new companies?

One important reason is that there are too few high-profile female role models to show that there is an alternative to the prevailing stereotype for success. Moreover, women’s ideas for start-ups are often not deemed to be successful business models. Studies show that women are just as likely as men to focus on revolutionary market innovations that enable a company to make a lot of money quickly, but they also tend to place a special emphasis on values such as creating jobs or the social benefits of a product. Many in the start-up community, from venture capitalists to political funding institutions and strategic partner organisations, have a negative stance towards this way of thinking. They take only a two-dimensional view of innovations, focusing on the technological progress and market influence while ignoring the dimension of social benefits. 

In your opinion: is there a typically female management style?

It's difficult to give a concrete answer to that question, because management styles can be as diverse, or rather could be as diverse, as the people who manage and are managed. In the past women frequently had to adjust to masculine ideals in order to secure a management position. However, the working world is changing and many companies and institutions are switching to new organisational forms. In this context alternative management concepts are developing that open up opportunities to question and change masculine ideals.

Are women less willing to take risks than men when it comes to making decisions?

Our research has not confirmed this widespread assumption. Instead, we have observed that women tend to assess things differently when it comes to high-risk decisions. Women appear to be considerably more willing to take personal risks in the name of the common good. Men, by contrast, tend to assess risks on the basis of their perception of their own competence, which is often more positive than in women: women tend to underestimate themselves, and as a result assess the risks as less controllable.

How do men and women deal with competition?

Preliminary studies show that it is not so much gender that determines how an individual deals with competition, but whether a person has a more masculine or feminine attitude. People with a predominantly masculine attitude tend to see competition in terms of dominance and subordination, and thus think in terms of hierarchies. Those who see competition from a feminine perspective, by contrast, attach more importance to helping subordinate colleagues develop a competence profile that is as different as possible to their own skillset. So in the future, once they are on an equal footing, it will still be possible to work together successfully.

Interview: Iria Sorge-Röder

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