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“A diversity of opinions results in people making better decisions”

An interview with Professor Dr. Barbara Burkhardt-Reich and Professor Dr. Elke Theobald, directors of the Business Development Steinbeis Enterprises at Pforzheim University

Professor Dr. Barbara Burkhardt-Reich and Professor Dr. Elke Theobald, directors of the Business Development Steinbeis Enterprises at Pforzheim University, spoke to TRANSFER Magazine about the conditions required for employee diversity to contribute to the success of a company and why promoting women is still of great importance.

Hello Professor Burkhardt-Reich, hello Professor Theobald – there can be no question that diversity is a fixed part of work environments. But just because you have a colorful team, it doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be successful. What’s the starting point for a business for diversity to be worthwhile for the workforce?

A colorful workforce only leads to success if employees are perceived for their totally specific and different competences, if these are valued, and if they’re put to use accordingly within the business. Diverse teams are only successful if diversity of opinion is seen as an enrichment, since a diversity of opinions results in people considering different ways of looking at things and this helps make better decisions. For this to work properly, an open corporate culture is required. Seeing diversity as an opportunity means pulling together heterogeneous teams in which the different competences complement one another. This is the job of managers, so it’s not just about having colorful teams, it’s also about the guiding principles of leadership, which should include how to successfully handle diversity.

One area your Steinbeis Innovation Center is involved in is women in leadership positions and it’s also the sponsor of the Spitzenfrauen BW project, which looks at leading women in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg and offers a careers website for women and firms in the state. Why is this topic so important to you?

We see lots of young women at the university who come to us from school with better grades than their male counterparts, and often they then graduate in their degrees with better grades. Our female students typically also get off to a good start in their careers, but after a couple of years their male colleagues are ahead of them on the career ladder. For us, this is an important motivation to do something to change this situation. We want to show that women have everything it takes to work in management positions but that the framework conditions within companies also have to be right for women’s careers. In our view, equal participation between men and women also means that qualified women should have the same opportunities to enter management as men. To do this, we provide the women involved in our project with access to a network with a wide range of services; for the companies there are lots of instruments and food for thought on creating a work environment that offers equal opportunities.

Do you feel there is a particular need to promote the advancement of women in certain target groups?

There is certainly a highly urgent need to take action here. We have female academics in our community from a migratory background who have some shocking things to report. We’d like to name a few examples: a woman not being invited to an interview with a foreign name but after marrying and changing her family name to a German name, the same woman received an immediate invitation. Drastic changes in the behavior of colleagues towards women during telephone conversations after a name change. And even more serious: a leading woman working as a managing director for the foreign subsidiary of a German company discovering that her career path would never have been possible here in Germany. What all these examples show is that the role models and stereotypes are so deeply engrained that something has to be done urgently within these companies. They’re handing away valuable potential!

In a working world dictated by globalization and digital transformation, the topic of diversity will become more and more important. What can companies do to prepare for these developments?

To cope with these changes in the world of work, a company has to change its corporate culture. This can be used as an opportunity to create so-called “opportunity spaces” for women’s careers. Some of the key concepts that come up in this context are moving away from a culture of physical presence and organizing time and space more flexibly instead; changes in career models, away from “careers in chimneys” to careers in rotation; transparency when it comes to career mechanisms; moving away from rigid hierarchies toward a collaborative management style, which, moreover, is a crucial prerequisite for bringing together teams as part of digital transformation. The concept of careers needs to be redefined and made more appealing again for the young generation. Personal goals need to revolve around a motivation to shape things, around exciting projects, not this underlying idea that careers are hierarchical. So companies need to re-examine the role models and stereotypes that are still in place, and of course this means adapting management styles.