The Laurence Simons Search Talking Head Series continues with an interview with Dr. Barbara Mayer, Managing Partner at Friedrich Graf von Westphalen & Partner on the German #stayonboard initiative
On Tuesday 3 March, 2020, the stock listed e-commerce Westwing Group AG announced that its founder and CEO, Delia Lachance, resigned from her position as a board member two days previous because she wanted to take maternity leave for a period of six months and parental leave after and, as required, resigned from her position on the board.
As a result, a debate arose as to whether it is still appropriate for board members to resign from their position on the board, even in the event of a temporary decision, such as pregnancy, parental leave, long-term illness or caring for close relatives to avoid liability for such measures and decisions that are taken and implemented during an absence.
This discussion prepared the ground for the foundation of the #stayonboard (https://stayonboard.org) initiative, in which well-known representatives from politics, economy and the legal community have come together to strive for a change in legislation that gives managers the opportunity to pause their mandate for a period of up to six months without having to fear a corresponding liability risk. One of the supporters is Dr. Barbara Mayer. The German Directors of Laurence Simons Search, Nicolai von Steinaecker and Sven Laacks, caught up with Barbara to find out more.
Please read our exclusive interview below.
LSS: Good afternoon Barbara, and thank you for taking the time to talk to us today.
BM: It is my pleasure - the topic is very close to my heart and hopefully our conversation on this topic will raise awareness further.
LSS: First of all, how are you in these difficult times?
BM: Thank you, I am actually very good. I am healthy and business is currently going surprisingly well. As an established German entity, our law firm has come through the crisis very well so far, and I do not see any signs that this will change in the near future.
LSS: Why are you supporting the #stayonboard initiative?
BM: We have achieved a lot in Germany in recent years to make it easier to combine work and family, but so far there are no comparable regulations for members of the Board of Management, as they are not employees in the legal sense. We waste considerable potential when committed board members are forced to step back upon the birth of a child or the temporary care of relatives or because of illness.
LSS: Indeed, fully agreed. So, what is the recent status quo of the campaign?
BM: In addition to the key issues paper of the #stayonboard initiative, DAV (the German Lawyers Association) has also got involved; I am personally involved in DAV for years among the working group of female lawyers in DAV. In this context, I already acted as expert in the legal committee of the Bundestag in the discussions on the first women's quota, and now I have had the honour to be the representative for DAV for the #stayonboard initiative. DAV has a very clear position on this topic and have already worked out an in-depth proposal for the formulation of the amendment to the law. It is now up to our politicians to respond and provide answers. With a wink towards the legislator, I would like to point out that Section 86 of the German Stock Corporation Act, which has been laying dormant since 2002, would be ideally suited for the new regulation.
LSS: Yes, we came across this while preparing for this interview – so it should just be a formality?
BM: Yes and no - even if the problem was recognised by all those involved and the government has promised a “benevolent examination”, there have always been concerns in Germany that changes or requirements in this area could impact the competitiveness of companies. But we have seen lately with the minimum wage that none of the predicted horror scenarios occurred, and that we as an economy are doing very well with it. And even though I’m delighted that the introduction of gender quotas in supervisory boards has been passed no fears have materialised. Personally, I think that the introduction of a dormant mandate would have a very important symbolic effect. For young women who are considering getting involved as managers it is certainly not to be underestimated to know that family and work can stay compatible where needed. As a country, we have to create the necessary framework conditions so that things can develop and evolve.
LSS: Within your law firm, as managing partner, do you actively support the progress of your female colleagues?
BM: Of course, though the goal of becoming a partner is often not as important to younger female colleagues as to male colleagues. In the course of family planning, young female lawyers often switch to the civil service or the legal department of companies. In our law firm there are, including myself, 3 female partners out of 34 partners in total, so we still have a lot of room for improvement. We provide the necessary freedom, offer a lot of flexibility and support young lawyers in their development. It also takes ambition and courage - that must also come from the colleagues themselves. This is why signals with a symbolic effect are very important.
LSS: For example, the victory of the duo Biden-Harris in the US – the first female Vice President?
BM: Certainly yes - such role models motivate capable young women. Fortunately, there have recently been several successful examples of female leadership and crisis management internationally, for example in New Zealand and Finland. All very positive developments that will help us in Germany as well, though we have had a female Chancellor in Germany for 15 years already.
LSS: Back to Germany: what else could the economy do in this country?
BM: There must be more incentives to promote women! Fortunately, as mentioned earlier, the government just decided on a quota for women in top management last week. But these managers have to come from somewhere. It is still much easier to win men for management positions, for executive and supervisory boards. In my opinion, a good way of increasing the proportion of women is to conclude appropriate target agreements with top management. This may take some getting used to, but in the end, everyone benefits from it. Mixed-run companies are more successful! And the more women who have a career, the more role models there are to encourage others to follow.
LSS: We can only agree with you, Barbara. Please stay tuned and, above all, stay healthy! Thank you very much for your time and this interesting exchange!