An interview with Martina Schmidt, director of the Contact Point for Women and Careers in Ravensburg, Lake Constance/Upper Swabia
Equal treatment for men and women at the workplace – a goal that has still not been achieved in Germany. Like a huge magnifying glass, the current pandemic has done even more to highlight the degree of inequality in the working environment. TRANSFER magazine spoke with Martina Schmidt, director of the Contact Point for Women and Careers in Ravensburg, Lake Constance/Upper Swabia, and asked her about the specific services the unit offers to support women, as well as the fundamental changes in society and politics that would be necessary to change the current situation.
Hello Ms. Schmidt. You head up the Contact Point for Women and Careers. From your experience, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in their professions?
Women face many challenges during their careers. It starts with the fact that even today, it’s usually women who step away from work when it’s time for children, i.e. they reduce their working hours, and in some cases they even stop working completely and only eventually come back to work on a part-time basis, just so they have enough time for their work with the family – which is unpaid. Of course, this means women not only lose out financially but they also risk having less money in old age, or even facing poverty as senior citizens. Single mothers are particularly badly affected by this.
And then there’s the fact that women still earn much less than their male counterparts. Many women work in low-wage jobs, such as nursing, whereas many men work in high-salary sectors of industry in technical areas. When women set up companies, they generally attract much less capital than male startups. There are far fewer women in top positions compared to men because they’re held back by a glass ceiling. There are still a lot of things that aren’t right for us women.
What services can you offer to support women in such circumstances?
Basically, we support women in working out career goals and work alongside them on potential actions and next steps. Each counseling session is tailored to the individual situation the women find themselves in when they seek support. Our aim is to provide comprehensive and neutral advice in an atmosphere of trust in order to identify the most suitable solution on a personal level.
The important topics we cover are career orientation, career progression, career changes, ongoing training, business startups, returning to work, and reconciling the competing priorities of a career and a family. The Contact Point for Women and Careers also organizes events and training, among other things to raise awareness of the issues and challenges I just mentioned, but also to inspire, encourage, and give impetus to women in their professional and personal development. To do this, we work closely with key stakeholders in the local employment market. Everything we do revolves around the needs of our customers and the requirements of business and the labor market.
The current coronavirus pandemic is putting many women at a distinct disadvantage in professional terms. What impact is this having on the services you offer to those affected by the pandemic, and how has that influenced your work?
The coronavirus pandemic revealed the overall situation faced by women, and we find it deeply worrying. Coronavirus works like a magnifying glass when it comes to the level of inequality that already exists between the sexes.
We immediately put our entire services online, the moment the pandemic set in – not just our consulting services but also the events. As a result, within a very short time we succeeded in reaching out to a large number of women in what was a very difficult time. We themed our online events to encourage and empower people. So for example we offered inspiration on “discovering your inner strengths” or workshops such as “times of crisis are times of opportunity.” A large number of women made use of the offer, and they were extremely grateful.
We’ve also developed some made-to-measure services such as a six-week interactive online workshop on “which job makes me happy” for women who want a career change or are forced to change for other reasons, in some cases due to the coronavirus pandemic. The aim of this workshop is for participants to become clearer week by week about what they want and what they can do, so they feel galvanized in taking the next steps.
And then there are topics like networking and gaining visibility in the social media, which were already and still are on the agenda when it comes to helping women connect online. Fortunately our team feels at home with digital technology and is highly adaptable, so that makes it easy for us to adapt quickly to new topics and issues.
You also offers services for – and with – companies. What does that involve, and how strong is the demand from companies?
The idea of our Contact Point for Women and Careers is to provide a port of call for companies committed to equal opportunities, family-friendly working hours, modern HR policies, and a modern corporate culture. Often, the way this translates into practice is that companies approach us with a topic for a joint event, such as “attracting female employees via social media” or specific questions about different ways to set up networks for women, or ways to attract and retain women in IT.
We also help companies find qualified female employees. So on the one hand, that can mean events for companies to introduce themselves, but we also use targeted mailshots to forward job offers through our distribution list, which is pretty extensive. Companies are very happy to make use of our lists.
Time and again we’re approached by a company owner looking for a suitable successor – perhaps specifically female – for their company. We also share such inquiries with our network and one or two potential successors have already been found as a result. Last but not least, the Contact Point for Women and Careers was and still is available to companies, as well as the self-employed, or sole-traders with questions about the coronavirus situation.
Thinking about your experience and the things you’ve witnessed, what needs to change for women and men to participate equally in the world of work?
The biggest thing gender equality needs is a shift in our thinking, which often still revolves around antiquated role models and is also reinforced by the media and advertising. This is where a systemic change is needed; basically this has to start in the parental home. If we want equality at work to become a reality, we should set an example to our children as soon as possible and show them how it works – for example by doing more to share childcare and valuing childcare accordingly.
Also, we women need to do much more to raise our profiles and fight for more visibility; we need to support each other and create positive role models. We need more women to be involved in decision-making processes – at companies and in politics. We can’t just wait and hope that the setup will change. We need legal measures, for example a binding equal opportunity target for women. At least until we really achieve parity.