Women in the Internet economy: “There’s simply a highly skilled workforce available.”

Experts interview
Dr. Regina Buhr
Senior Consultant at VDI/VDE Innovation + Technik GmbH

Dr. Regina Buhr has been working on topics related to gender and diversity in the workplace for over 30 years. After completing her PhD at the Technical University of Berlin, she worked as a researcher at the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) and since 2001 as a project leader and senior consultant at the Institute for Innovation and Technology (iit), an institution of VDI/VDE Innovation + Technik GmbH (VDI/VDE-IT). She is particularly passionate about ensuring the fair distribution of future-oriented job opportunities.

Peter Waleczek
Managing Partner of FLEX Capital

Peter Waleczek is an entrepreneur and expert in strategy development and financial management at FLEX Capital. He spent many years as a management consultant at McKinsey, where he gained extensive experience. He also played a key role in establishing the consulting firm Clevis and the online shop Herrenschmiede. In 2018, he co-founded FLEX Capital along with his partners.

Dr. Buhr, thank you very much for taking the time today to talk to me about a very interesting topic. You are a co-author of the study “Framework and Working Conditions for Women in the Internet Industry.” What is your background? How did you become involved in this topic?

Dr. Buhr: I have been working on the topic of women and work, gender relations in the workplace and society for over 30 years, with a particular focus on technical professions and technical work environments. This has always interested me a lot, and it was quite natural for me to get involved when the iit (Institute for Innovation and Technology at VDI/VDE Innovation + Technik GmbH) was commissioned by eco, the Association of the Internet Industry, to conduct a study on the framework and working conditions for women in the internet industry.

After many years in academia, I have been working as a researcher and project manager at VDI/VDE Innovation + Technik GmbH since 2001, particularly at the Institute for Innovation and Technology (iit) within the organization. Our shareholders are VDI (Association of German Engineers) and VDE (Association for Electrical, Electronic & Information Technologies). The iit is a division of VDI/VDE IT, focusing on projects that involve studies and research topics.

The iit can be seen as a sort of think tank within our organization. The studies conducted there are truly enjoyable for me. Within this context, I have led various projects related to women and technology.

Furthermore, since this is truly a matter close to my heart, I am also involved in the Competence Center for Technology Diversity Equal Opportunities. This center also focuses on girls and women in the STEM field. So, as I mentioned, this topic is very dear to me, for so many years, and I was delighted to be able to collaborate on this project with Prof. Wittpahl and Peggy Kelterborn. It was truly wonderful.

Peter Waleczek: That’s nice.

Dr. Regina Buhr:Regarding the study, it should be noted that it is a brief study. We were only able to touch on the topic because there isn’t much material available. It’s a research area that really needs further exploration, but the study is at least an initial step into the topic.

Peter Waleczek: I completely agree. As I mentioned, the topic is personally important to me as well. Also, at FLEX Capital, we are very mindful of diversity and actively consider how we can promote it. In the introduction of your study, it’s clearly stated that companies aiming to compete for talent should pay special attention to a specific target group, which includes female professionals and leaders.

Can you give the reasons why people should be on the lookout for female professionals and managers in particular?

Dr. Regina Buhr: In the study, the focus is primarily on the internet industry. However, this is not exclusive to this sector, as the boundaries of the internet industry have become less distinct. Activities that were originally associated with the internet industry have now spread into other sectors. Nevertheless, we have attempted to concentrate on the internet industry to make the topic manageable.

Regarding the reasons why one should look for female professionals and leaders, I would like to mention three:

There is simply a shortage of skilled workers. Companies can no longer afford to turn a blind eye when recruiting and ignore a highly relevant pool of workforce potential.

We have a situation where we have a generation of highly qualified young women. If you look at how the percentage of female high school graduates has changed in recent years, you can see that young women have surpassed the percentage of young men who graduate from high school, and this trend is increasing. I checked again, for example, in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), in the year 2021, the high school graduating class had 55.1% female graduates. There is simply a highly qualified pool of workforce potential available, and companies should not simply ignore this.

Furthermore, there are also more and more testimonies and scientific studies indicating that gender-diverse teams come up with more creative solutions and work more efficiently than homogeneously composed groups. In that sense, it can be said that women, and diversity in general, constitute a success factor within teams and contribute to the economic success of a company.

Those, I believe, are reasons enough for companies to take a closer look in that direction. This is especially applicable to the smaller and medium-sized companies in the internet industry. The larger companies have recognized this for quite some time.

Moreover, there are also increasing reports and scientific studies indicating that gender-diverse teams tend to come up with more creative solutions and work more efficiently than homogeneously composed groups. Therefore, it can be said that diversity, including women, serves as a success factor within teams and also contributes to the overall economic success of a company.

Peter Waleczek: Indeed, the way you describe it, the solution to these issues seems quite evident. In your study, you provide specific recommendations for action in the Internet industry concerning areas such as leadership development, organizational culture, personnel recruitment, onboarding, and retention. One of the mentioned recommendations is the implementation of diversity training for companies.

What do these diversity training programs look like, and how can a company determine if such programs are relevant for their own organization?

Dr. Regina Buhr: What is important to me is leadership, and by that, we don’t just mean the top levels. Because leadership exists at all levels. We often find ourselves in situations where projects are being worked on. This means that every project leader is, in a way, also a leader, and therefore, I advocate for an expanded understanding.

Peter Waleczek: That’s how I would define it.

What is important to me is leadership, and by that, we don’t just mean the top levels. Because leadership exists at all levels.

Dr. Regina Buhr: What is clear is that leadership plays a key role in this development. A gender- and diversity-oriented approach to team and project management requires competencies that are not typically included in the usual educational and academic offerings.

Leading a heterogeneous team is more complex. There are many opinions, diverse lifestyles, age groups – so keeping this together is a different task than when everyone has the same opinion and confirms each other. There’s not much to discuss in that case. But with diversity, it’s a different matter.

These diversity trainings, which I recommend as an important solution approach, convey gender-sensitive communication methods, such as ensuring fair participation in discussions. There are communication styles between men and women that differ. The role of a leader is to ensure that all contributions are heard.

Gender and diversity-oriented leadership culture also involves competence in personnel selection. It’s important for me to be attentive in this aspect and not simply choose someone who fits the team due to their similarity, but to also prioritize diversity. And that is truly not trivial.

It also involves being able to put myself in the different perspectives and viewpoints of team members as a leader, in order to bring these out for the benefit of the project’s success.

But I am an optimistic person and I believe this is not rocket science. It can be learned. And diversity training can help with that. Moreover, there are also online offerings for these trainings. Online courses have increased in popularity over the past months due to the pandemic and have proven effective. It’s not difficult for companies to provide such sessions and make them accessible to their employees. They can be done from home and they work.

Peter Waleczek: We’ve now examined the topic of leadership quite closely. In close proximity is the organizational culture. Here, you’ve demonstrated that valuing differences can be reflected through flexible working hours, remote work, part-time arrangements, parental and other leave options without career breaks, for instance.

Why is valuing diversity so important and how can companies overcome the fear of flexibility?

Dr. Regina Buhr:I can’t quite understand this thing about fear. The thing is, before the pandemic, it was the companies that were calling for flexibility. Then, it was more like the employee side saying, “Stop, we don’t want that much flexibility,” “everything needs to be well structured,” and “working hours need to be trackable.” So, that’s why I can’t really comprehend these fears, because it doesn’t make sense to me. Are the managers afraid that their employees won’t work enough when they are in home office?

Peter Waleczek:I think, personally for me, I have to say that before the pandemic, I was also more skeptical. It’s not just about the pure working hours, but we are a small to medium-sized company where that culture gets lost. When you sit together in a room, meet in the hallway, have coffee at the coffee machine, a lot of communication exchange happens, and you get a sense of the company, especially for new employees. During the pandemic, we also hired new employees and for the first half-year, they hardly saw anyone. And I believe that’s more the concern. It’s less about the work results and more about the cultural work life and the sense of enjoyment being lost.

When you sit together in a room, meet in the hallway, have coffee at the coffee machine, a lot of communication exchange happens, and you get a sense of the company, especially for new employees.

Dr. Regina Buhr: If you mean it in that sense, it’s understandable. We are also a mid-sized company. We have the same questions that concern us: How do we manage to maintain or restore this sense of unity? It’s indeed a challenge for the leadership level.

I would like to address the point of appreciation. Appreciation of diversity. In this context, organizational culture research suggests that organizational culture exists on both the level of values and on the very practical level of structure and processes.

Exactly, it’s possible to talk about appreciation, but it must not remain just talk. What we need in companies are the corresponding structures and processes to support it.

Absolutely, that includes things like flexible working hours, ensuring that team meetings don’t happen in the evening hours. It’s about establishing and living a corporate culture that values personal responsibilities as well.

Peter Waleczek: That’s definitely an important issue. Could you provide me with more details or context about the topic of personal recruitment and how it relates to your organization? This will help me provide a more accurate response.

Particularly exciting in your study was the point that job postings should be worded differently to appeal to women. Can you respond to that?

Dr. Regina Buhr: This is a very interesting finding, showing different perceptions between men and women regarding the requirements stated in job advertisements for a position to be filled. Research has indicated that women tend to read requirements more self-critically than men. The expectations articulated in job postings are often evaluated as unattainable in relation to one’s own capabilities, leading women to frequently refrain from applying.

Therefore, it’s important to ensure that the technical requirements are formulated in an objective manner. Additionally, attention should be given to highlighting the non-technical competencies necessary for fulfilling the role. It’s a fact that aspects like communication and “interacting with people” are valued by women.

We conducted a study using an example of a degree program that was predominantly attended by men. The providers wanted to attract more female students, so they renamed the program. They changed the highly technical name and incorporated aspects related to health and biology. This modification actually increased the percentage of female students.

Therefore, it’s important to formulate the technical requirements objectively and then also address the interdisciplinary skills necessary for the job. The fact remains that topics like communication and “working with people” are aspects that women value.

Peter Waleczek: Once this step is achieved and you have successfully attracted a talent, it’s important to provide a strong start, which brings us to the topic of onboarding and retention. In this regard, you mention the instrument of mentoring by internal female role models or external female mentors from other technology networks.

What does such a mentor-mentee relationship ideally look like?

Dr. Regina Buhr: Perhaps a brief backtrack to the topic of personnel recruitment: Company representation. This also plays an important role in the application process. Just for fun, I looked at this on your website, FLEX. If I were to apply to your company and I go to the homepage, I would initially see only men. Okay, then I continue, and on the “Who We Are” section, I see women as well. But the initial image alone conveys the impression of a male-dominated company. These are aspects that, beforehand, can shape an impression for a female applicant, and this perception has an impact.

To come back to your question: In job interviews, it’s important to ensure that not only male representatives are present, but also a female employee from the company. This is practical, lived diversity.

Coming to the mentoring approach: It’s not a new concept. It has existed since ancient Greece, and utilizing this method of pairing an experienced person within a company with a newcomer has proven to be effective. In the classical form of mentoring, known as one-on-one mentoring, an experienced individual serves as a mentor to guide a less experienced person, the mentee, within the same company. However, there are various other forms of mentoring as well. For instance, there’s cross-mentoring, where partnerships are formed with other companies. There’s also e-mentoring, which involves electronically facilitated mentor-mentee exchanges. In our study, we’ve highlighted further examples and provided insights on how to implement these approaches.

Peter Waleczek: Zum Abschluss noch zwei kontroverse Fragen. Ein gesellschaftlicher Diskurs ist sicherlich richtig und wichtig, um nachhaltig eine Veränderung des Status quo herbeizuführen. An einigen Stellen empfinde ich persönlich, dass hier jedoch sehr stark polarisiert wird und dadurch Konflikte erst generiert werden.

Where do you see dangers and how can we get around them?

Dr. Regina Buhr: When you talk about conflicts and refer to the last six months, do you mean the discussion about the third gender?

Peter Waleczek: Nicht unbedingt. Vielleicht kommt meine Einschätzung auch eher aus dem privaten Umfeld, da wird ein Konflikt erzeugt. Diese Unterscheidung zwischen Mann und Frau.

Dr. Regina Buhr: We are actually more advanced now, as we’re talking about diversity, not just about men and women. Even though the female target audience still plays a significant role in terms of quantity and quality, especially in technical work environments, and despite numerous programs, there is still a need for improvement when it comes to greater inclusion of women. Unfortunately, not as much has changed in that regard as we would wish for.

Nonetheless, I do see positive developments as well. The CDU is now discussing quotas, which would have been unthinkable years ago. In that sense, something has already changed. And of course, change is accompanied by conflicts. There are always those who have fears and want to maintain the status quo. And these individuals are not just men. From my perspective, it is helpful to focus on the aspect of diversity and to highlight the opportunities embedded within it, while moving away from the topic of gender polarity.

Ich kann mich nur wiederholen und auf die Chancen diversitätsorientierter Unternehmenspolitik hinweisen. Genauso wie eine Gesellschaft davon profitiert, wenn alle Mitglieder gleichberechtigt in die Gestaltung eingebunden werden, genauso profitiert auch ein Unternehmen davon.

You’re speaking of dangers that need to be navigated. But what’s dangerous about women pursuing well-paid professions and having a secure retirement afterwards? What’s risky about men working as educators or in elementary schools and children not having only female role models? Or the change from rigid working hours? What’s perilous about that? Fathers, too, increasingly want to spend more time with their children.

I can only reiterate and emphasize the opportunities presented by diversity-oriented corporate policies. Just as society benefits when all its members are equally involved in shaping it, companies also reap advantages from this approach.

Peter Waleczek: I understand the societal goal, and I also have two young daughters myself, with whom I want to spend time. At FLEX, we aim to do more to enhance diversity at all levels. For instance, we have initiated a dedicated career event for young female academics.

Do you see a danger that this could lead to active discrimination against male applicants?

Dr. Regina Buhr: Certainly, there are distribution struggles. I believe that this might be bitter for some.

From my perspective, it’s important to clearly explain why specific career events like the ones FLEX organizes are necessary. FLEX has valid reasons for doing so. These reasons need to be communicated transparently and comprehensibly. Creating divides between different groups, such as men and women, young and old individuals, etc., is not in the interest of fostering innovative and rewarding work and corporate environments.

Peter Waleczek: I understand that. Probably, in the end, we still won’t reach a conclusion, and such an answer is naturally unsatisfying. All that you’re saying, creating this environment, achieving this equality of opportunity, that’s what it’s about. And I see that the overall pool of candidates in applications is already about 50/50 in terms of men and women in the fields of study, but the applicant numbers in our case are 80/20; then something isn’t right there. We must be addressing people incorrectly in the job descriptions, posting on the wrong channels.

Absolutely, once this equality of opportunity is established in the overall pool, objective criteria should prevail. Performance, leadership and expertise become the factors that count, and one has to weigh them. It’s not necessarily about the distinction between men and women anymore, but perhaps more about factors like parenthood versus non-parenthood, as we experience in our company. Addressing these needs is crucial.

Thank you for the conversation, it was very fascinating. Let’s see how things develop in research.

But once this equality of opportunity is established in the overall pool, objective criteria should matter. Performance, leadership, and professional competence are what count, and one must weigh them.

Dr. Regina Buhr: I thank you, and good luck with your work. And take a look at your website, perhaps you could make some changes there.

Peter Waleczek: You’re right, but we also can’t deny that we were 6 founders. But that’s a good point. Thank you very much.

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