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Mr. Sattelberger, at Deutsche Telekom you introduced a 30 percent quota of women in management positions. The German government turned this quota into a legal mandate. Is this enough to achieve workplace equality?

We did something very different at Deutsche Telekom than what the current German law has implemented. In 2010 the Executive Board agreed to a voluntary quota. That is a fundamental difference, whether you are convinced of your own decision or acting under legal pressure. The government has laid down a marker with the 30 percent quota for Supervisory Boards in listed companies, but the flexible quota for management of more than 3,000 companies has gone down like a lead balloon.

Promoting women is above all a question of culture, not quotas.

Companies were meant to set their own targets for the proportion of women in leadership positions. And most simply set the goal of maintaining the status quo. In other words, they're doing nothing. Plenty of German companies have come across as dinosaurs in this area. What this does make clear is that promoting women is above all a question of culture, not quotas. And corporate culture cannot be regulated. Diversity management only works when the Executive Board is fully behind it.

Are German companies ready for this transformation of values?

We're lagging far behind in international comparisons. Diversity is often not viewed as opportunity here. This issue isn't only about gender equality, but about a whole range of diversity questions. Why is German industry dominated by engineers and MBAs? Why not political science and humanities graduates? Or why do only six percent of managers come from an immigrant background? Scandinavian companies and those in the English-speaking world are two decades ahead of us here. In part because diversity is a systematic aspect of education in these countries.

Industry has now placed digitization on the agenda. Here innovation seems more important than workplace diversity.

That's a mistake. Who's going to innovate, if not the diverse people making up the economy? There's a strong correlation between how we produce and how we treat people differently. Even the terms “worker, employee, staff” still hark back to the coal mining days! The individual is a cog in the system. A nothing.

Who's going to innovate, if not the diverse people making up the economy?

Stemming from this tradition, German companies are far more focused on efficiency than on innovation. That's understandable – it was the model for success for the industrial society. Diversity is just sand in the gears of our powerhouse corporations. But now the economy is transforming – it's becoming a digital and creative knowledge and service economy. Efficiency alone doesn't get you too far here. That's why we have nothing to counter the Ubers and Airbnbs of the world.

You sound pessimistic.

I'm not at all! There are more and more companies promoting diversity management. I launched the notion of Work Culture 4.0 in Germany years ago, and today we have wide-reaching public debate on this topic. That makes me happy even now that I'm retired! (laughs)

To implement diversity, first we have to set aside the standardized, homogenized HR processes that are keeping us stuck in a modern form of slavery. Astonishingly enough, the very companies who introduced these systems some 30 years ago are the ones who are now getting rid of them, with General Electric doing away with performance management, and Bosch jettisoning variable compensation. There are more career paths for men and women over 40. Individually tailored work schedules and job sharing are possible even for management. These are important steps.

You say that companies should become talent biotopes where every individual can flourish. What does that mean in practice?

We need to stop with the standardizing! Get rid of the macho skills profiles that say a manager has to be authoritative, aggressive, assertive, etc. Get rid of the standardized assessment centers where young people line up like sheep to “adapt” and be trained.

And it's not just companies that have to act, but also every individual. Every woman and man is the entrepreneur for their own talents. You can't wait for a solicitous authority to spread its protective wings and create your path to success. Clinging to a culture of the benevolent employer isn't going to launch us forward into the digital age.

Hear more about this topic in the keynote speech by Thomas Sattelberger at HANNOVER MESSE on 29 April. This pioneer in the field is opening the WoMenPower career conference together with Nadine Allen of Ericsson and Camille Johnston, Senior Vice President Corporate Communications, Siemens USA and former Special Assistant to Michelle Obama at the White House.