The Employer’s Association for Insurance Firms (AGV) in Germany is the top political organization of the German Insurance Branch. Over 216,000 workers are working in firms represented in this organization, and 99% of all insurance firms are in this organization, according to Simone Rehbronn, AGV.
On March 27, 2012, the AGV hosted a seminar day in Cologne, the first “Women-in-Leadership” day. Women in the insurance industry in Germany, 133 strong, gathered to discuss how more women can enter leadership. Although women are more than 50% of workers in the industry, only 2-3 percent of the top leadership positions are held by women. Some of these women were in attendance, as well as many women at the next level of leadership. The goals of the day were to raise the visibility of women working in the branch, as well as to raise awareness of the need to promote female talent up the management and leadership ladders. The women discussed why so few women have reached the top and what the organization can do to promote women in leadership.
I was invited to lead a forum during the day on “the influence of gender roles on career pathways.” I explained that gender roles are socially-ascribed tasks, abilities, and preferences assigned to either men or women. It’s assumed — by society, friends, family, and even individuals themselves — that a person prefers or is inclined to these roles, even if individual people deviate from them. One can realize that a gender role is assumed when ideas come in our heads like, “a real man does (or doesn’t do) this or that” or “a woman should (or shouldn’t) do this or that,” or if something surprises us because it doesn’t conform to gendered expectations. Gender roles explain why we assign some work only to men and other work only to women. For example, in Germany, women are mainly responsible for caring for children. One consequence is that employers often assume women will be less engaged or committed to their jobs. Therefore women are often hired last, laid off first, not promoted, and paid less than men, even for the same work. Men, on the other hand and for the same reasons, often are preferred for leadership positions. The situation is of course more complicated, but this is one way in which gender roles influence career pathways.
Career profiles vary between men and women. Even though there are many exceptions, the ideal-typical “male employment career” is characterized by uninterrupted employment, long work hours, and mobility. The identity of a man in Germany is strongly influenced by his job — the first question many people ask a man to get to know him is “what do you do for a living?”
The ideal-typical “female employment career” on the other hand has more breaks in employment, shorter work hours, and less mobility. Many families expect that the man is the main earner, so the woman’s career should fit to the demands of his earning potential, not the other way around. Although times are changing, many people in Germany ask women as a way of introduction, “do you have children?”
Even though there are many exceptions, women who are in the exception, having work typical of “male employment careers” confront the expectations of others and the societal structure that assumes that women should be at least part-time at home with children. Women in leadership in particular are more often single and childless than men in similar positions. Younger women deciding about family and career see such role models and often decide that the price is too high, that they would prefer not to forego a family life, and thereby rule out leadership ambitions for themselves. Many think that they have to decide either a family or a career, but not both, not even sequentially, especially in Germany. Other countries have cultures and infrastructures that assume women will be employed and in leadership. France, Scandinavia, and the United States are some examples.
The few women who do take on leadership positions have to face the fact that they are considered exceptions, and they confront situations that their male colleagues do not face. We discussed these situations, and solutions to them, in our Forum. The results will be published within the AGV shortly, and when they are, I will present them here as well.
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