“The leading wolves howl differently”

In an interview with SUITS, Elke Benning-Rohnke explains why women belong on supervisory boards.

SUITS: Why do women belong on the supervisory board, Mrs. Benning-Rohnke?

BENNING-ROHNKE Why don’t we ask: why do men belong on the supervisory board? Mixed teams are better teams. In the meantime, there have been numerous and long-standing studies that suggest that companies that have women in management positions are economically more successful. The innovative strength of companies is increasing and women are changing the climate positively. The leading wolves howl differently when a woman is with them. You listen to each other better, perhaps you drum a little less loudly, but you get more out of it. All communication is changing for the better, as many chairmen of the supervisory boards now confirm.

SUITS: If that’s the case, why do we still have so few women in the top positions?

BENNING-ROHNKE: On the one hand, there is the tendency for promotion according to the mode of self-similarity. On the other hand, sterotypes have an effect on the assessment of behaviour. The ideal career candidate is male, tall, slim, with a wife behind him who manages the children and the house. In Germany he is often called Michael or Thomas. His behaviour corresponds to the stereotype of a ‘great’ man and that is the same as that of a successful manager. The stereotype of a ‘great’ woman, on the other hand, does not correspond much with the qualities of a good manager, who, for example, must be assertive and demanding in certain situations. It is of course very detrimental that self-similarity and stereotypes influence staffing processes, because many companies don’t see many talents as a result of this. In the USA, a small test was carried out when filling an orchestra, which revealed this pattern of hiring personnel according to the principle of self-similarity. The test is played behind the curtain and there is a ban on shoes – since the jurors were blinded in this way, the number of female orchestra members has increased significantly.

SUITS: What are their biggest stumbling blocks for women?

BENNING-ROHNKE: In addition to the mentioned aspects, women often like to please. This desire to please is deeply rooted. But that doesn’t necessarily get you to the top. On the contrary, women are always perceived as hard-working and reliable employees, but they are not believed to have the necessary leadership skills. However, if she behaves like her male colleagues, she is less likely to do so because she is a woman. This is a dilemma that some CEOs have already recognised and taken action against different assessments of the same behaviour. The way to a top level rarely takes place in a sedan chair, and a thick coat is one of them. Since women are generally more self-critical, which is very positive in itself, they ignore criticism less and they don’t shout “here” so quickly when it comes to filling a position. It has been proven that men generally have more confidence in themselves and often overestimate themselves.

SUITS: You yourself are a good role model. Career, children, man – everything there with you. What were the challenges in your career?

BENNING-ROHNKE: In addition to the usual challenges that a career advancement brings with it, the peculiarity of often being the only woman among all men to hold a position, the reconciliation of two careers and a harmonious family life is once again a special challenge. Looking back, this seems to have worked well, but it requires a lot of clarity as to what and how much one is able to achieve and a good self-management to implement it. The compatibility of family and career is often experienced as a burden, but it is seldom the obstacle of a career. These, in turn, are more the aspects of stereotyping and self-similarity described above. I would like to see a bit more Swedish conditions here. There it seems to be much more usual to live professional and family responsibilities as a whole – from fathers as well as from mothers. Of course, this immediately changes the corporate culture as such.

SUITS: As a FidAR management member, you accompanied the development of the so-called “FüPo law”. The law stipulates a gender quota of at least 30% for supervisory board members of fully co-determined and listed companies that will be newly appointed from 2016. They will certainly encounter opponents of quotas on a daily basis. What do they say to them?

BENNING-ROHNKE: I say to the opponents, who themselves are influential managers: Nobody wants the quota. But it is the most effective way to achieve the desired change. The quota system has only been introduced because the promised commitments have failed miserably. It is precisely these opponents who are responsible for the failure. To the women who have difficulty with this, I say: It doesn’t matter whether your occupation takes place via the quota or, as is the case with many men, via relationships from the Old Boys Club. If you have the job, do it well. Then you can also act as a role model and encourage other women to do the same. In general, well-considered legal interventions are often much better in the end than expected by the opponents – think of the introduction of the smoking ban. There was a lot of excitement, gastronomy was in ruins, cities were afraid of lonely streets, people were claiming the right to smoke freely, etc. And today? Today everyone is happy that they are no longer in the smoke.

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Elke Benning-Rohnke is an entrepreneur, supervisory board chairman, supervisory board member and advisory board member. She is also an honorary vice-president of FidAR e.V., a nationwide association for the promotion of equal participation of women in management positions in business. Founded in 2006, FidAR has over 800 members from business, science and public life – including many men. Elke Benning-Rohnke brings more than 30 years of experience from working in and for international corporations. She has built up her expertise in well-known companies such as Procter & Gamble and Kraft Jacobs Suchard in Germany and Canada. Already after twelve years she was appointed to the board of Wella AG due to her success and was responsible for the B2B business worldwide. In addition to her entrepreneurial activities, she holds various supervisory board and advisory board mandates. She is Chairman of the Supervisory Board of H&Z AG in Munich. She is married, has two adult sons and lives in Munich.

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