Women in the internet economy:
"There is a highly qualified workforce potential available."

"There is a highly qualified workforce potential available."

Even though equal opportunities is one of the central topics in many companies these days, the proportion of women in the IT sector remains shockingly low. In an interview with FLEX founder Peter Waleczek, Dr. Regina Buhr from VDI/VDE Innovation + Technik GmbH talks about the current situation of women and diversity in the Internet industry. She explains what companies should look out for if they want to attract and retain female talent.

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

Dr. Regina Buhr has been working on gender and diversity issues in the workplace for more than 20 years. After completing her doctorate at the Technical University of Berlin, Dr. Regina Buhr worked, among other things, for a long time as a project manager for VDI/VDE Innovation + Technik GmbH. Since 2018, she has been a senior advisor at the Institute for Innovation and Technology (iit) of VDI/VDE-IT. She is particularly concerned about the fair distribution of promising jobs.

Peter Waleczek

Peter Waleczek,
Managing Partner of FLEX Capital

Peter Waleczek is an entrepreneur and expert in strategy development and financial management at FLEX Capital. He was a management consultant at McKinsey for many years. He was the founder of the consulting firm Clevis and the online store Herrenschmiede. In 2018, he founded FLEX Capital with his partners.

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

Dr. Regina Buhr: I have been working for more than 30 years on the topic of women and work, gender relations at work and in society, and preferably with reference to technical professions and technical working environments. I've always been very interested in this, so it was actually quite logical for me to collaborate when iit (Institute for Innovation and Technology in VDI/VDE Innovation + Technik GmbH) was commissioned by eco, the Internet industry association, to conduct a study on the framework and working conditions for women in the Internet industry.

After working in academia for many years, I have been a researcher and project manager at VDI/VDE Innovation + Technik GmbH since 2001, including at the Institute for Innovation and Technology (iit) there. The VDI (Verein Deutscher Ingenieure e.V.) and the VDE (Verband der Elektrotechnik Elektronik und Informationstechnik e.V.) are our shareholders. The iit is a unit of the VDI/VDE IT and there are mainly the projects that include studies and research topics.

The iit is a kind of think tank in our organization. I simply enjoy the studies that are carried out there. I have already led various projects on women and technology within this framework.

In addition, because this is really close to my heart, I am also involved in the Competence Center for Technology Diversity Equal Opportunity. This center is also concerned with girls and women in the MINT sector. So, as I said, this topic has been very close to my heart for so many years, and I was pleased to be able to work on it together with Prof. Wittpahl and Peggy Kelterborn. That was really great.

Peter Waleczek: Thats's nice.

Dr. Regina Buhr: With regard to the study, it must be said that it is a short study. We were only able to touch on the subject because there is not much material available. It is a field of research that really needs to be explored, but the study is at least an introduction to the topic.

Peter Waleczek: I think so too. As I said, the topic concerns me personally. Also because at FLEX Capital we are very concerned about diversity and we are thinking about how we can create this diversity.

Can you give the reasons why you should look out for female specialists and managers in particular?

Dr. Regina Buhr: The study is preferably about the Internet industry. But this does not only apply here, because the Internet industry is ultimately no longer so clearly delineated. Activities that were originally associated with the Internet industry are now diffusing into other industries. Nevertheless, we have tried to focus on the Internet industry in order to make the topic manageable.

As to the reasons for looking out for female professionals and executives, I will mention three:

There is simply a shortage of skilled workers. Companies simply can no longer afford to be blind on one eye when it comes to recruiting and ignore a highly relevant potential workforce.

We have a situation where we have a generation of highly qualified young women. So if you look at how the proportion of women graduating from high school has changed in recent years, you can see that young women have overtaken the proportion of young men taking a high school diploma for several years, and the trend is increasing. I checked again. In North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, we now have 55.1% female high school graduates in 2021. There is simply a highly qualified workforce available and companies cannot and should not simply ignore this.

In addition, there are more and more field reports and scientific studies that show that mixed-gender teams come up with more creative solutions and work more efficiently than homogeneous groups. In this respect, it can be said that women, that diversity, represent a success factor in teams and also a success factor for the economic success of a company. I think these are enough reasons for companies to take a closer look. This is especially true for small and medium-sized companies in the Internet industry. The large companies have recognized this for some time now.

Then there are more and more reports from experience and also scientific studies that say that mixed-gender teams come up with more creative solutions and work more efficiently than homogeneously composed groups. In this respect, it can be said that women, that diversity, represent a success factor in teams and also a success factor for the economic success of a company.

Dr. Regina Buhr

Peter Waleczek: It almost sounds like the solution to the problems is obvious, the way you describe it. In your study, you give very specific recommendations for action in relation to the Internet industry for the fields of action of management development, organizational culture, personnel recruitment, personnel induction and personnel retention. I would like to touch briefly on all the points. Let's start with management development. Here, diversity training for companies is specifically mentioned. This is the first time I have read about this.

What does diversity training look like and how do you know that it is relevant for your own company?

Dr. Regina Buhr: What's important to me are leaders, and by that we don't just mean the top levels. Because managers actually exist at all levels. We often have the situation that work is done in projects. And that means that every project manager is also a manager to a certain extent, and in this respect I would argue for a broader understanding.

Peter: That's how I would define it as well.

What is important to me are managers, and by that we don't just mean the top levels.

Dr. Regina Buhr

Dr. Regina Buhr: What is clear is that managers have a key role to play in this development. A gender- and diversity-oriented approach to team and project management requires competencies that are not part of the usual education and study programs.

It is more complicated to lead a heterogeneous team. There are many opinions, different lifestyles, age groups - so keeping that together is another task than when everyone is of the same opinion and you confirm each other. You don't have to discuss much. But with diversity, it's a different matter.

These diversity trainings, which I recommend as an important approach, teach gender-sensitive forms of communication, for example, accepting requests to speak fairly. There are communication styles between men and women that differ. It is the task of a leader to ensure that all contributions are heard.

A gender- and diversity-oriented management culture also includes appropriate competence in personnel selection. I have to be attentive and not just pick the person who fits into the team because of their similarity, but also pay attention to diversity. And that is really not trivial.

As a manager, I also have to be able to empathize with the different perspectives and points of view of the team members in order to tease them out for the benefit of the project's success.

But I'm an optimistic person and I don't think that's witchcraft. It can be learned. And diversity training helps with that. And these are also available as online offerings. Online courses have risen in recent months due to the pandemic, and they've proven their worth. It is not difficult for companies to offer such units and make them accessible to employees. You can also do it from home and it works.

Peter Waleczek: We have now looked at the topic of executives. Pretty close to that is organizational culture. Here you've shown for example that valuing differences is characterized by flexible working hours, mobile working, part-time, parental leave and other time off without career breaks.

Why is valuing differences characterized by flexible working hours and how can companies take away the fear of flexibility?

Dr. Regina Buhr: I don't really understand this fear. The fact is that before the pandemic, it was precisely the companies that were calling for flexibility. Then it was more the case that the employees said, "Stop, we don't want that much flexibility," "Everything has to be well structured," and "Working hours have to be billable. And that's why I can't understand the fears, because that doesn't make sense to me. Are managers afraid that their employees won't work enough when they're in the home office?

Peter Waleczek: For me personally, I have to say that I was more skeptical before the pandemic. It's not just a question of working hours; we are also a small, medium-sized company, and it's precisely this culture that is lost. When you sit together in a room, meet in the hallway, coffee at the coffee machine, there's a lot of communication exchange and you get a feel for the company, especially new employees. We also hired new employees during the pandemic and they hardly saw anyone for the first six months. And I think that's more the fear. Not so much the work result, but that the cultural work life and the fun factor will be lost.

When you sit together in a room, meet in the hallway, coffee at the coffee machine, there's a lot of communication exchange and you get a feel for the company, especially new employees.

Peter Waleczek

Dr. Regina Buhr: If you mean it in that sense, that's understandable. We are also a medium-sized company. We have the same questions driving us: How do we manage to maintain or restore this sense of unity? That is a challenge for the management level.

I would also like to address the issue of appreciation. Appreciation of diversity. Organizational culture research says that organizational culture exists at the value level, but also at the very concrete practical level of structure and processes.

It's wonderful to talk about appreciation, but we can't just talk about it; we also need the appropriate structures and processes in the company.

And this includes, for example, flexible working hours and making sure that team meetings do not take place in the evening. It's about establishing and living a corporate culture that also values private tasks.

Peter Waleczek: Yes, that is definitely a mindset task and a very interesting point. Next topic: personnel recruitment, currently the most relevant topic for us, as we receive far more male than female applications, even when approached directly. Particularly exciting in your study was the point that job advertisements should be worded differently to appeal to women.

Can you talk about wording job advertisements differently to appeal more to women? What are the other starting points in the area of personnel recruitment?

Dr. Regina Buhr: This is a very interesting finding, the different perceptions of men and women of the requirements for a position to be filled as stated in job advertisements. Studies have shown that women tend to read requirements much more self-critically than men and often assess the expectations formulated in job advertisements as unachievable with regard to themselves and do not apply.

One should therefore ensure that the technical requirements are formulated in an objective manner and then also address the interdisciplinary skills that are necessary for the fulfillment of the task. It just happens that the subjects of communication and “dealing with people” are aspects that women value.

We once examined this in a study using an example of a degree program that was quite heavily frequented by men. The providers wanted more female students and then the course was renamed. The very technical name was changed and the aspects of health and biology were included. It was then actually possible to increase the proportion of female students.

One should therefore ensure that the technical requirements are formulated in an objective manner and then also address the interdisciplinary skills that are necessary for the fulfillment of the task. It just happens that the subjects of communication and “dealing with people” are aspects that women value.

Dr. Regina Buhr

Peter Waleczek: Once this step has been taken and you have actually won over a talent, then you should enable a good start, i.e. the topic of staff training and retention. Here you mention the instrument of mentoring by internal female role models or external female role models from other technology networks.

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

Dr. Regina Buhr: Perhaps a quick jump back to personnel recruitment: the company presentation. That also plays an important role in the application. Just for fun, I did this once with you, with FLEX, and if I wanted to apply to you now and I go to the start page, I first see only men. Okay, then I go further and at "Who we are" there are also women. But the start image alone gives the impression of a male-dominated company. These are points that already convey an image in advance for a female applicant that has an effect.

To return to the question: Even in the job interviews, you should make sure that not only male interviewees are present at the interview, but that there is also a female company employee. That is practical, lived diversity.

To come back to mentoring as an instrument: It's not new. It already existed in ancient Greece, and the use of this instrument - bringing together an experienced person in a company with a young person who is new to the company - has proven very successful. In classic mentoring in the form of one-on-one mentoring, an experienced person as mentor guides a less experienced person as mentee. Both persons belong to the same company. However, there are also other forms of mentoring. For example, so-called cross-mentoring, where partnerships are formed with other companies. Or the possibility of e-mentoring, which involves an electronically mediated mentor-mentee exchange. In our study, we have given further examples and tips on how to do this.

Peter Waleczek: Finally, two controversial questions. A social discourse is certainly right and important to bring about a sustainable change in the status quo. In some places, my personal feeling is that there is a great deal of polarization here, which is what generates conflicts in the first place.

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: Not necessarily. Maybe my assessment also comes more from the private environment, there is a conflict being created. This distinction between man and woman.

Dr. Regina Buhr: We have actually already moved on because we are talking about diversity, no longer just men and women. Even though the target group of women continues to play a major role, both quantitatively and qualitatively, particularly with regard to technical working environments, and despite numerous programs there is still a need to catch up when it comes to the greater involvement of women. Unfortunately, things still haven't changed as much as we would like.

Nevertheless, I also see positive developments. The CDU is talking about quotas, which was unthinkable years ago. In that respect, something has changed. And of course, changes are associated with conflicts. There are always those who have fears and who want to preserve what already exists. And it's not just men. From my point of view, it is helpful to focus on the aspect of diversity and to name the opportunities that lie in it and to refrain from the topic of gender polarity.

I can only repeat myself and point out the opportunities of diversity-oriented corporate policies. Just as a society benefits when all members are equally involved in shaping it, so too does a company.

You talk about dangers that have to be avoided. What's dangerous about women working in well-paid jobs and having an adequate pension afterwards? What is dangerous about men working as educators or in elementary schools and the children not having only female caregivers? Or changing rigid working hours? What is dangerous about that? Fathers also increasingly want to spend more time with their children.

I can only repeat myself and point out the opportunities offered by diversity-oriented corporate policy. Just as a society benefits when all members are equally involved in shaping it, so too does a company.

Dr. Regina Buhr

Peter Waleczek: So socially I understand the target picture, I also have two little daughters myself that I want to spend time with. At FLEX, we want to do more to increase diversity, at all levels. For example, we created a special career event for young female academics.

Do you see a risk of actively discriminating against male applicants here?

Dr. Regina Buhr: In any case, there are distribution battles. I think that this will be bitter for some.

From my point of view, it is important to make clear why such special career events are needed. FLEX has good reasons for this. These must be communicated transparently and comprehensibly. The creation of fronts between the different groups, men and women, young and old, etc. cannot be in the interest of innovative and livable working and corporate environments.

Peter Waleczek: I understand that. Probably we still don't come to a conclusion in the end and such an answer is of course unsatisfactory. All what you're saying, creating this environment, creating this equal opportunity, that's what it's all about. And I see the basic population of candidates in applications is already about 50/50 men and women in the courses of study, but the number of applicants with us is just 80/20, then there is something wrong. Then we address people incorrectly in the job descriptions, post on the wrong channels.

But as soon as this equality of opportunity is created in the basic population, objective criteria should count. That's when performance, leadership and professional competence count, and you have to weight them. Today, it's not necessarily the difference between men and women, but rather perhaps parents and non-parents, as in our company, and these needs must be addressed. I was born a little too early.”

Thank you very much for the interview, it was very exciting. Let's see what happens next in the research.

But as soon as this equality of opportunity is created in the basic population, objective criteria should count. That's when performance, leadership and professional competence count, and you have to weight them.

Peter Waleczek

Dr. Regina Buhr: Thank you and good luck with your work. And take a look at your website, maybe change something there.

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

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