Interview with Elke Heitmüller, Head of Diversity Management at the Volkswagen Group
When it comes to cultural change, Volkswagen Group also focuses on diversity – and starts with managers. A special program within the Volkswagen Group is designed to sensitize employees to the topic and ensure that they live diversity within the company. Elke Heitmüller, Head of Diversity Management at the Volkswagen Group, explains what is important here.
The German women made many positive headlines at the Soccer World Cup in France despite their defeat in the quarter-finals. A symbolic success for women all over Germany?
Absolutely. The sportswomen are role models for many women in the sense of learning to win. With commitment, competence and sympathy, they show that it works. In addition, more and more top sportswomen are working for equal rights. Fair payment and equal travel and playing conditions are just as much a topic as corresponding appreciation. These are issues that concern all women –worldwide. And when top female athletes highlight this, it helps all the more.
The viewing ratings at the Women’s World Cup are higher than ever. How do you explain that?
Companies, associations and politicians are increasingly recognizing the added value of diversity. The dismantling of privileges that only exist on the basis of a characteristic such as gender is being discussed in public. Scientific studies show that it is almost grossly negligent not to use the potential of women. Enough reasons, therefore, to turn our attention to the Women’s World Cup. Ultimately, however, the main reason is that they play football remarkably well and watching them is fun.
Volkswagen not only supports women’s soccer at the DFB, but also at VfL Wolfsburg. Why is this important and right?
For the same reasons that we support the VfL men. The women are extremely successful and show us what can be achieved through good teamwork. They exemplify our corporate values. And by the way: half of our customers are women and even more are involved in the purchase decision.
As a volleyball player, you used to be a competitive athlete yourself. How can sporting success be transferred to the world of work?
Sporting success does not come automatically. It needs goal orientation, talent and perseverance. You have to be prepared to give your all, even if it hurts. It is about attitude and a positive basic attitude. And you have to know the rules of the game to be successful.
How do you define diversity in companies?
Diversity in a company is achieved when the right person is in the right place at the right time – regardless of gender, cultural background, sexual orientation or other dimensions of diversity. If the position and person fit together well, if the composition of the team is right, we have done a good job.
What is your management diversity strategy?
We take a holistic approach: “We live diversity” is anchored in our strategy. We have minimum standards worldwide, which we pursue by means of a diversity index. We ensure that our HR processes are fair and free of prejudice. And we offer training for managers and employees.
“It won’t work without effort.”
What challenges do you see in this?
We are all very much influenced by our social environment and society. We unconsciously put people into certain drawers and then make decisions about them. This is counterproductive in everyday working life. Unconscious prejudices can influence rational decisions. That’s what we have to do. At Volkswagen, we are currently starting worldwide training courses for our managers with diversity wins @ Volkswagen, in which we sensitize them to cognitive distortions of perception – so-called bias and stereotypes. It is crucial that unconscious prejudices are recognized and avoided.
One of the Group’s declared goals is to bring more diversity to management positions. How is this coming along?
Considering that gender equality has only been enshrined in the Basic Law since 1953 and that the DFB only lifted its ban on women’s football in 1970, we have come a long way in this respect. As is unfortunately still the case in Tech companies, the proportion of women at Volkswagen AG is less than 20 percent. In middle management, for which we had already set targets before the introduction of the statutory gender quota, the figure is currently 15.5 percent. I am optimistic that we will close the gap in the foreseeable future. It will not work without effort. We have to stay on the ball permanently.
Do you feel resistance when you talk about diversity and gender justice?
No, not at all. Everyone has understood that these are important and company-relevant topics. Respect and appreciation are part of our corporate culture. Nevertheless, it is the permanent responsibility of each and every one of us to ensure that this is achieved.
How does Volkswagen exploit the potential of female employees?
In the same way as with male employees. It is important for every person to find a job that matches his or her abilities and possibilities. Here, too, we take a close look. Because women tend to communicate their abilities less vocally.
What does the Group offer for university graduates especially?
We don’t have anything gender-specific, but of course various entry programs offer women in particular a good start into the world of Volkswagen. They range from various trainee programs and the doctoral program to direct entry as an expert.
Is there a quota of vacant positions in the group?
No, not yet. But we have a great interest in attracting many more great female talents. This is why we will focus our activities even more clearly on this goal in the future.
What advice do you give young female entrants?
Have courage, self-confidence and bring in your feminine qualities. Don’t let yourself be deterred, take advantage of opportunities. Believe in yourself. There is nothing you cannot do if you set yourself a goal, stick to it and don’t let anything discourage you. Try out new things, stay flexible and remain open for new opportunities. Expand your network. In this way you can learn and gain new perspectives on things. See your career from a sporty perspective.
Is it even helpful to speak of typically female qualities?
No, it’s not. Men and women are different. Different worlds of experience lead to different preferences. In the end, however, it always depends on the person and the competences available to him or her. The latter can be trained.
Should all employees be treated equally in mixed teams?
With equal opportunities, but not equal, people are different.
There are very few women coaches in men’s football. From your point of view a mistake?
Probably. I think they overlook some of their talents.
The German Football Association (DFB) is looking for a new president. Can you imagine a woman in this position?
Without a doubt.