“Women have a lot more opportunities than they think”
Today is International Women’s Day and this year’s theme is: ‘Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world’. How realistic is this aspiration just now?Melanie Schütze: The situation is really challenging for all of us at the moment. As a society, we have to live with it the way it is. But that doesn’t mean our values change overnight – values such as solidarity and the desire for fairness, for example. On the contrary, our values shape our social interaction all the more at this time. So I would like to say that yes, the goal is realistic and more necessary than ever.
In Audi’s women’s network colleagues meet on an equal footing – not only in a professional context, but also for an open exchange of views. How is the current crisis being discussed there?
Anika Widmann: The coronavirus is magnifying problems that were already there. Women with children, carers, single parents and those living alone are particularly feeling the strain. In general, we often discuss the fact that we women have become less visible and are partly reverting to outmoded roles. It’s important to insist on a role swap from time to time. In this way partnerships can grow, partners can become even better, more effective teams. The fact that the crisis is lasting so long, though, is increasingly pushing us to our limits. It’s all the more important to have managers who take into account the individual situations of their female employees and show empathy. The key word is trust!
Denise Mathieu, you are a manager at Audi and have been practising remote leadership for a year. How do you meet these expectations?
Denise Mathieu: We reacted quite quickly and worked well as a team in remote mode. Admittedly, we need more person-to-person interaction. It’s not so easy to get in touch and stay in touch. As a manager, you have to leave more room for that and also cross another item off the agenda from time to time. After the first lockdown, the drive has now become significantly greater and there’s a lot of catching up to do, which is why it’s important to take some time out and recognise additional stresses.
You want to use diversity and inclusion at Audi specifically to achieve a ‘new normal’ with greater equal opportunities. How do you want to do this in practical terms?
Denise Mathieu: We developed and adopted our new D&I strategy in the middle of the coronavirus crisis precisely because we saw the urgency for it. Inclusion means being welcome, belonging, being able to be oneself. It’s quite a demanding concept, because it means that each of us must work on ourselves and that we take the appropriate systemic approach. In fact, the coronavirus crisis has played into our hands: there will be no complete throw-back. Many fathers are now working permanently from home. It’s certainly no coincidence either that in the past year dads@audi have established themselves as a new diversity network. Virtual working also brings with it a certain democratisation. These developments represent great added value for the company because employees – irrespective of gender – are happy to participate.
So, is ‘inclusive leadership’ also a key to more women in management positions – away from the traditional advancement of women?
Denise Mathieu: Being inclusive means we value individual skills and personalities. This is actually a very different approach to that of previous support programmes which have been geared towards certain homogeneous ideals that women should achieve. We need to get away from this idea in the long term and start changing the system itself.
Cabinet ministers talk about the recently adopted mandatory quota for women’s representation on the management boards of Germany’s biggest companies as a ‘milestone’, critics find fault with the low effectiveness. With justification?
Melanie Schütze: Of course this law doesn’t go far enough. It’s a minimum participation quota, so let’s be under no illusions about it. Nevertheless, it’s a step in the right direction – one of many. We clearly need to do more, on the political, societal and personal levels. That’s exactly where we start as a female business club: we want to enable women, expand their mindset, make them understand how much added value they can create. Women have a lot more opportunities than they think. They need to challenge themselves again and again and also put themselves in supposedly uncomfortable situations, such as having a conversation about a pay rise. Every woman can make a difference! We live in an extremely interconnected world, and everything that individuals do can have a big effect.
Audi has had two women – Hildegard Wortmann and Sabine Maaßen – on its management board for a while now. What effect have these personalities had?
Anika Widmann: Mixed teams work so much better! This is also what the women from our network at Audi say, throughout the company and across all hierarchies. That is why we were very pleased with these personalities. Role models work well, but at the same time it’s important for us to develop and strengthen trust between female colleagues. We do this through visits to different company departments, providing information in a safe space, for example on pension regulations, etc, and through private events which help us to bond.
The employee networks are open to all interested parties, i.e. men can join the women’s network and women the newly established father’s network. How well does this principle work?
Anika Widmann: Men show us great respect for the many things that we get off the ground, especially in our free time. It appeals to them. We are currently holding many ‘lunch & learn’ meetings and are hoping for increasing interest from their side. We’d love to see more!
“Those who miss out on using ideas and potential will not succeed.”
Audi wants to push through an overall culture change. What role will women play in this?
Denise Mathieu: We’re undergoing an incredible transformation at Audi, be it in drive systems, business models or in the company itself and its culture. Those who miss out on using ideas and potential will not succeed. That’s why it’s important to convince people within the company with values, to convey meaning, to respond to the way employees live and, for example, offer flexible working arrangements. Women also give us many tasks as a customer group. We must not only safeguard their interests but also actively address them.
Cultural patterns and stereotypes are still deeply embedded in our society. Are we, as a company, doing enough to address them?
Denise Mathieu: We’re talking about a very dynamic area here. To have heard about something is not enough, for example in the case of unconscious bias. In the long term, we want to achieve real behavioural change. For this we need an ongoing debate and common social norms in the company. We need to catch ourselves if things turn into the wrong direction.
Empirical studies prove that one of women’s great strengths is to lead cooperatively, evaluate risks precisely and thus to be able to make a valuable contribution, especially in crises. So is now actually the time when female managers come into their own?
Melanie Schütze: I wouldn’t want to classify it in this way. Rather, I think it is an important time to set the course for society. We have to ask ourselves right now: do we still want to live in a time in which girls have poorer chances than boys? As shown by the role models at Audi, wouldn’t we rather say to girls: you can be a board member too, if you want to be? It’s about authenticity, courage and self-confidence.
How many International Women’s Days will there have to be before we achieve an equal future?
Melanie Schütze: According to the Global Gender Gap Report, if we continue at this rate, we won’t reach the equality we’re striving for until the year 2121. We should all ask ourselves: what can I personally initiate to achieve greater equality of opportunity? Were we to do that, we’d be much further forward.
has been head of AUDI AG’s Diversity Management Department since 2017 and at the same time coordinates diversity activities in the Audi Group worldwide. She previously worked for several years in international HR management for both Volkswagen and Audi and was HR Project Manager for Audi China Enterprise/Beijing.
has worked in agencies, start-ups and in consultancy, as well as founding a successful women’s network. ‘nushu’ is a rapidly growing business network for young women throughout Germany and a counterbalance to the old boys’ networks. Besides her job as managing director of ‘nushu’, the Munich native is also a mentor for Google Launchpad, an advisor for consultancy company 55birchstreet, a member of the PwC Advisory Council and a Business Insider at XING.
joined AUDI AG in 2014 after studying industrial engineering and the European Business Programme. After positions in Logistics, she now works as a planner in Innovation Management/P-LAB in Neckarsulm. She has been a core team member of the Neckarsulm Women’s Network since 2017.