Tatjana Breloh was a statistical rarity in Germany: a woman who had climbed to the top of her profession as managing director of Euro RSCG, a Dusseldorf ad agency. But in June 1997, Breloh, now 44, was fired. Her dismissal came a week after she received a $25,000 bonus for good work--and three days after informing the company that she was going to become a mother. "It was simple," she recalls. "I got pregnant, and I got fired."
Breloh sued, and her case is now wending its way through the German courts. Her employer has denied firing her because of the pregnancy and said the discharge was the result of a company reorganization. However the courts decide, Breloh is part of a growing group of women who feel that German business routinely discriminates against them in management jobs by maintaining a barrier to upward mobility, or glass ceiling. Last year German female executives held just 9.2% of management jobs, according to Hoppenstedt, an economic publisher. In contrast, the International Labor Organization notes that in the U.S., the percentage is 43%, in Britain 33%, in Switzerland 28%.
The higher women climb in the corporate hierarchy, the greater the resistance, says Sonja Bischoff, a researcher at the University for Economy and Politics in Hamburg. "More and more women are getting entry-level management jobs, but when they want to move up, they feel discrimination, and it's real." Further discrimination can be found in their salaries. In a survey of executives in the third tier of management from the top, Bischoff found that 25% of males had incomes in excess of $100,000 while none had salaries below $40,000. Among women, 30% had salaries below $40,000 and none had salaries above $100,000.
But German Big Business is slowly catching on. A number of large corporations, especially those engaged in international trade, have started training programs to help women join management ranks. Volkswagen has a program to train 18 women a year--admittedly a small number--for a corporate level where there are 800 managers. The women, mostly engineers already employed by the company, get a year of coaching as preparation for entry-level management jobs.
To help boost women farther up the executive ladder, Lufthansa has joined with seven other major corporations to offer a so-called cross-mentoring system in which high-ranking managers in one company offer advice to women managers in another firm. It's an effort to help them develop the kind of old-boy network that allows male managers to successfully climb the corporate ladder.
Another breakthrough that may help German women is a welter of decisions coming out of the European Union. A finding by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg puts the onus on the employer to prove it did not discriminate when a pregnant woman is fired. That could strengthen the hand of women like Breloh--who has found a solution. She has set up her own agency with some of her former clients, and it is expanding. In the long run, if companies don't adapt to changing times, they may find that their former female managers have become their toughest competitors.
--By Charles P. Wallace/Berlin