The organizational structures prevailing in companies are still strongly influenced by men. How to behave successfully as a woman in this environment without having to bend over backwards is described by renowned leadership trainer Marion Knaths. Having been a senior executive in a corporate group herself, she passes on her many years of experience with esprit and verve, using many examples from everyday working life. Always with a sense of humor and always with the aim of increasing women's influence on the rules of the game.
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Translated from the German by Gabrielle Alioth and Hans-Christian Oeser
First published in Germany in 2021 by
© Berlin Verlag in der Piper Verlag GmbH, Berlin/Munich 2021
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
Conversion based on a CSS-layout from digital publishing competence (Munich) with abavo vlow (Buchloe)
Cover design: zero-media.net, München
Cover & Impressum
Miss – young woman – widow
They don’t have the mind
No need to change your personality, just your behavior in relation to a goal
Rules of communication in organizations
Hierarchical and non-hierarchical communication
A meeting commences
The dear colleagues
Speaking effectively and appropriately
The negative threshold
Occupying space appropriately
The stripes on the epaulettes
Clothes and career
Do good and talk about it
Respectful – but clear on the matter
And a special thanks goes to Horst Seehofer
Don’t fix the women, fix the system
Supporting other women
Let’s talk money
and all the young women now embarking on their professional careers with either degree or training courses
and all the women successfully going their own way even though circumstances are still adverse
Names of persons and organizations have been changed.
Where are all the women?
Since 2004, more women than men in Germany have graduated from university with a first degree. Most of them with better results than their male counterparts. For all of seventeen years this has been the case. Where are these women today? After almost two decades, we might expect to find many of them in top positions, whether in business, academia, or the public service. But figures tell a different story.
At the same time, we have been hearing more and more often in recent years that it’s time to stop talking about equality. In international organizations, some people even talk about being ‘post-gender.’ Really?
This book is aimed at those who are committed to their work and would like to receive appropriate recognition for it. At those who have decided that they want to make inroads within existing frameworks. At all those who would like to help shape those frameworks by exerting more influence. In that regard, learning from the mistakes and successes of others is a smart approach.
Before I founded my company ‘sheboss’ after a career in a corporation, I had most of all made one thing: plenty of mistakes. But likewise I have always tried to learn from my mistakes. Or else I wouldn’t have been the youngest executive in the company in my early thirties, and I wouldn’t have been asked to become a member of the board of an American stock corporation at the age of thirty-four.
For the past sixteen years, I’ve helped women to avoid many of those mistakes. And as I enjoy the great privilege of working mostly with highly educated, intelligent, and experienced women, I’ve also been learning from these women. Every week anew.
The world has changed since I chucked in my career in the corporate sphere. The core issues have not. Naturally, my course participants and my coachees thankfully no longer have to move in the world of sixteen years ago. Yet the challenges are still enormous And what all the women taking part in my training courses realize again and again even today: These are not just my issues; numerous women have these issues.
Fourteen years ago, I published my book Spiele mit der Macht, in which I wrote about my experiences. Since then, the world has kept turning, society has evolved, new trends in the labor market are emerging.
The present book, therefore, is not just about my experiences but also about the experiences and the knowledge of thousands of women who have to prove themselves and hold their own in business, science, medicine, consulting, the judiciary, trade unions, public service or wherever. And I invite you to learn from the mistakes and successes of these many great women.
Should you be one of those professionals who have been successful for some time: when others ask you for pointers, it’s sometimes not quite so easy to name precisely what made you succeed and what others can learn from it. Perhaps you will find suggestions in this text as to how you can support other people even more concretely. Because the more useful role models there are, the better.
To begin with, a few experiences from my own past.
What do today’s textbooks look like – is it still the male managing director and the female secretary? At the end of the 1980s, only those examples were given, and when at some point I asked out of exasperation whether we couldn’t also work on an assignment featuring a female CEO, I was immediately regarded as a ‘women’s libber.’ The lecturer sneered, ‘And now an assigment for Ms. Knaths. An authorized signatory, female…’
Not bad, considering. Don’t get me wrong: Being a secretary is a demanding job, and it’s not for nothing that an American study carried out in the early 1990s showed that the IQ of personal assistants was evidently higher than that of the managers they attended to. But if you don’t want to be a personal assistant, as a woman you’d like to work every now and again on an assigment with a female CEO – given that there is such a lack of female role models in the field.
And as for the day-to-day dealings in the company, there was a hail of ‘Fräuleins’ (Miss) from all sides. Even though I found it annoying and tedious to have to change the form of address from ‘Miss Knaths’ to ‘Mrs. Knaths’ every time it occurred – capitulating was out of the question. After all, I had managed to convince my own father, responsible for staff in the shipping industry, to do away with the term ‘Fräulein.’
‘Fräulein’ was followed by ‘junge Frau’ (young woman) in conjunction with a reproving look and a ‘Let me tell you something…’ whenever an older male employee ran out of arguments in a discussion. What should a well-brought-up daughter say in response? ‘Old man’ would have been an appropriate retort but wouldn’t have been honored by those around you – while ‘young woman’ is a killer phrase that is fully accepted in male circles. There’s only one thing to do: to grow older. And until then, to continue arguing your point undeterred.
By the way, I now train my female seminar participants to successfully deal with such killer phrases by using verbal judo techniques. At the time, however, I wasn’t yet familiar with those.
My most telling experience in regard to defending this bastion of manhood was with a purchasing manager in the electrical appliances department. Although that sector was teeming with macho men and I had never before heard so many sexist remarks, I found the topic of purchasing electrical appliances interesting. As a trainee, I was assigned to the microwaves and vacuum cleaners section and decided to tentatively ask the head of division about possible prospects for myself in purchasing electrical equipment.
I was told that, in his opinion, the purchasing of electrical appliances was not suitable for women (that’s right, not the other way around: that women were not suitable for it!). When I wanted to know the reason, he replied that it already started with the fact that I, as a woman, couldn’t carry a microwave.
Wow! What an argument! Stupidly, I had never seen the washing machine buyer with a washing machine on his back. There were carriers for that. When I pointed this out to the purchasing manager, he started fiddling with his pen. Then he had the saving idea, ‘You know, it’s not that I have anything against women in my division. But in our line, suppliers don’t accept women as business partners.’
There it was: the uninvolved guilty third party. Until then, I hadn’t suspected that women posed such a threat that a supplier would forego multi-million dollar contracts in defense of male rights. I was mightily impressed.
A year later, I received a very good job offer in this sector. No kidding. But I didn’t have to think for a second to turn it down with thanks. I opted for a somewhat more women-friendly line of business. After all, one already has enough on one’s plate with the actual work.
For years, I worked in a wide variety of managerial positions until the big moment came: I was appointed senior executive. My board of directors congratulated me and handed me my new contract with beaming smiles. And with a beaming smile I left the boardroom and immediately read through the contract in my office.
It had to be a case of mistaken identity: The company pension plan in my contract was clearly addressed to a man. Among other things, it said that the company would grant a widow’s pension in the event that my wife, to whom I would have been married until the time of my death, survived me. I took another quick look at the heading, but no doubt, it had my name on it. And at that time same-sex marriages were still a long way off…
So I picked up the phone, described my problem to the board secretary, and was referred to the head of the legal department. When I pointed out the discrepancy, he replied in a completely humorless manner that it was in no way a mistake. The text was legally flawless, he said, since it complied with the legal standard form. And as a lawyer he couldn’t change things around at will. Under no circumstances would I receive an amended pension commitment from him.
Earth, 21st century. This lawyer headed the policy department of a corporation with more than 40,000 employees, over half of them female. There weren’t all that many female executives but I was by no means the first. I ended the phone call with the words, ‘I see,’ and the thought, ‘We’ll see about that.’
I immediately called the HR director, whom I had known and respected for years and who, I imagined, wouldn’t knowingly snub his (very few) women in leadership roles. And so it was: He promised at once that I would certainly receive a contract which took into account the fact that I was a woman. Just one day later, the new contract landed on my desk. And it stated, legally flawlessly, that my widower would inherit from me.
Nowadays, of course, it would be legally just as possible for my widow to inherit, instead of my widower.
Some time ago, I attended a further training course on the subject of agile working. A modern topic. And again I had to deal with a male managing director and a female secretary in the documents. Now it’s nice when some things in life last. But after all these years, I would have been really pleased about a change in the teachings materials with regard to the roles cited.
As Ruth Bader Ginsburg, U. S. Supreme Court Justice, feminist icon and role model to many, said, ‘Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.’
It’s a huge achievement that young women today feel equal until they graduate from high school or college – because up to that point they are. In my grandmother’s and my mother’s generations, there was no question of that. And for my own generation, at least, it was clear that we would be able to graduate from high school and go to university but that afterwards things would be anything but equal. At school, we all agreed that it would be easier for an Alsation dog to become Federal Chancellor than for a woman. I’m talking here, of course, about the Federal Republic before reunification.
A fun fact: When the leaders of Germany’s main political parties debated the outcome of the 2017 federal elections on TV, there were exclusively men from the West – and women from the East! A coincidence?
We are so fully surrounded by everyday life and so steeped in it that we frequently don’t even notice the structures behind it. The people who today occupy responsible positions are plus/minus fifty or even significantly older. They are predominantly male and were for the most part socialized in the Federal Republic. And since, in my experience, we are quite busy coping with everyday life and very few of us concern themselves with the framework conditions that have shaped us, a brief excursion into history might be enlightening, in order to better understand still existing defense mechanisms against genuine equality.
One of the greatest heroines of equality in West Germany was Elisabeth Selbert. She was a lawyer and a member of the Social Democratic Party. Article 3, paragraph 2 of our Basic Law – ‘Men and women shall have equal rights’ – is primarily due to her struggle. The Parliamentary Council at the time (consisting of sixty-one men and four women eligible to vote) initially thought nothing of it. Elisabeth Selbert was the only one to fight for the insertion of that sentence in the Basic Law. She mobilized women’s associations, which rallied behind her cause and together generated so much pressure that the paragraph was ultimately included.
Prior to this, all other members of the Parliamentary Council had been in favor of retaining the still existing provisions of the Civil Code: Women had to give up their names upon marriage, they could not work, enter into contracts, or open a bank account without their husband’s consent. The husband had decision-making power in all family matters – in the event of a divorce, the children and the money remained with him. The wife had the duty to run the household.
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