Let’s go back to the year 1988. Back then the CEO of Volkswagen was still Carl Hahn, the German Chancellor sitting in the then capital of Bonn was Helmut Kohl and the border dividing East and West Germany was located only a few kilometers from the Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg. It was a different world, and the working world was different, too. “The new apprentices came into the huge hall on the first day – five young women out of 50 apprentices,” Anke Tesch recalls her career start that year as a 17-year-old rookie. “And that was still a lot, relatively speaking.” The Wolfsburg native began her training in materials testing. “At first that meant a lot of turning, milling, filing.”
While she was still in her apprenticeship, the Group management discovered the need for the targeted promotion of equality for both genders: in 1989, the Group and the works council agreed on the fundamentals for the advancement of women that are still valid today. Shortly thereafter, the first department for promoting gender equality was established.
Women at Volkswagen: A tradition of long standing
Women at Volkswagen, that’s a tradition of long standing. “Volkswagen is a corporation where, from fairly early on, it was relatively normal for women to work, especially at the assembly line, in Sales or in Human Resources,” Anke Tesch explains. Nevertheless, she can still remember that during her early days there, occasional remarks were made by older male colleagues whose wives didn’t work: “Why are you torturing yourself here?”
But to Anke Tesch, work has nothing to do with torture. “I like working, and I work a lot.” Long days at the office are more the rule than the exception for her. She also takes advantage of opportunities. Three years after completing her materials technology studies, a mentoring program caught her attention – one exclusively for women, for at the time there was only one woman in top management. The goal: to find out if she was suited to management. Anke Tesch was. The now 48-year-old moved into management, was head of a department in Tokyo for several years and completed yet another course of study – parallel to her job.
Such a program exclusively for women was innovative at the time; today the focus is on sharing knowledge and experiences regardless of gender. After all, even the term “the advancement of women” has largely become outdated in the meantime. “Our approach today is broader: in addition to equal opportunity for people of all genders, we look at equal opportunity for people of all nationalities and age brackets, independent of, for example, sexual orientation or personal lifestyle,” says Elke Heitmüller, head of Diversity Management at the Volkswagen Group. In summary: the diverse background experiences of all employees should be utilized.
Welcome to my living room
The Wolfsburg plant facilities, in the Technical Development Division, on a dreary fall day. Anke Tesch is walking through Hall 71, which could almost be designated as “her” living room. The walls are light-colored, a lot of light comes through the skylights, dozens of partially covered vehicles stand next to the workbenches. Everything looks clean and neat. A sign displays the equation: “order + cleanliness = safety.”
“I started in that room over there after I graduated,” Anke Tesch says. “And this is where a colleague taught me how to use a screwdriver more than 20 years ago.” Is a lot still the same now as it was back then? “The workbenches used to be blue, now they’re green – otherwise not much has changed here in Hall 71.” Apart from the cars and Anke Tesch’s responsibilities, that is, because it has been a long time since she tightened screws herself.
She and her team of around ten members take care of entire vehicle projects from the very first line the designer puts down on paper to the SOP (Start of Production). “We also support model maintenance until the end of production,” she explains. She walks through the hall, greeting colleagues, and you can see that her concept of leadership means being friendly to all and treating everyone with respect. Being loud and authoritarian – that’s a foreign concept to her.
Elbows and gummy bears
As a manager you do have to be able to use your “elbows,” but she makes it clear that she doesn’t think much of a culture where yelling is acceptable. “I represent more of a gummy bear mentality.” That means calming things down in a stressful situation first instead of immediately getting loud – then concentrating on tackling the task at hand.
Her success proves that she is right. However, she is just one of only 11 women alongside 176 men in Technical Development’s upper management program (OMK). In Whole Vehicle Development, she was actually the only female executive in the OMK. Why is that? “Many women just leave Technical Development at some point because it’s too masculine for them here,” is Anke Tesch’s opinion. That’s why she and some female colleagues founded the program “Women, transparency, career” two years ago in collaboration with Diversity Management, Human Resources and the Works Council.
So that men could also be included, the word “women” in the program title was recently changed to “Culture change and diversity in TD”. The reason is that many of today’s problems don’t apply purely to women anymore. “These are social problems: single fathers that work part time or want to work from home, or men who are caregivers for family members,” Anke Tesch explains.
Women’s quota yes, quota women no
The program serves as an example of how diversity is now put into practice throughout the Group. Elke Heitmüller puts it in a nutshell: “It’s not about advancing certain people, but establishing a framework in which all people can develop themselves in the best possible way.” The topic has become a fixed part of the Volkswagen DNA as expressed in the Group principle “We put diversity into practice”.
That’s also the reason the Group has stipulated its own women’s quota that surpasses the statutory requirements. These quotas – from hiring technical apprentices to top female managers – have been in effect since 2011. In the wake of the diversity index that applies Group-wide, the worldwide proportion of women in management and international executives in top management has also been tracked since 2017. As important as a women’s quota is to the aim of the corporation, Anke Tesch and her co-workers don’t want to be seen as quota women. It’s their performance that counts, and nothing else.
That’s why Elke Heitmüller’s Diversity and Women’s Advancement Team also advises departments on equal-opportunity structures and processes, and gets innovation projects off the ground that promote exactly that. Job-sharing models or the “flexi-shift” should be mentioned here as examples. One big challenge that is important to overcome is the ability to offer assembly line shift workers more flexible work models.
Wanted: more female mechanical engineers
In addition, the Diversity and Women’s Advancement Team organizes programs and events in cooperation with the Group Academy or individual departments. The Diversity Team is currently working with Anke Tesch’s team, for example, to try to get more women interested in technical occupations, because many female high school graduates who may still be unsure about their future professions are more likely to choose business administration than mechanical engineering.
“That’s why we are already going into schools and making sure that the STEM subjects aren’t neglected,” Anke Tesch explains. Volkswagen also offers student internships and has launched a program that allows young women to work at the Group for six months immediately after their high school graduation.
Employee networks like “LGBT* and friends” or the “Fathers’ network” also receive support from the Group. The “Diversity wins” program sensitizes managers around the world so that they can recognize prejudices and stereotypes, and dismantle them over the long term. Last but not least, life-work balance is a high-priority item on the Diversity Team’s agenda.
“You’re accepted, tolerated, are simply a colleague”
Why is so much effort put into this? Because it benefits the entire corporation. “Diversity is a very clear business case. We can only meet current and future challenges with a diverse workforce in which everyone can bring in their full potential. Diversity makes us more creative and resilient,” Elke Heitmüller explains. The more diverse the employees are, the broader the mindsets and, in the end, the better the products.
Anke Tesch stands next to a new model in Hall 71. “We recently had an interesting discussion about rails for child seats during the vehicle evaluation. The result: installing a child seat has to function as easily as possible, so that mothers – as well as fathers – can handle it without any problems,” she says. The input came from a young female employee. Women also contribute their own ideas regarding the exterior color or car seats. That gives the vehicles a somewhat more feminine touch, according to Anke Tesch. That in turn is important, because nowadays more than just a few women buy cars. “The female customers often see cars differently than men do.”
Quite a lot has been done in terms of equality since Anke Tesch started working at Volkswagen, even though not everything is perfect just yet. “People have to get it out of their heads that working here is purely a male thing. That’s simply not the case,” she explains, pointing out that the colleagues are all open, and everyone works well together. “Nowadays you’ll notice that equal rights are very strong. No one bats an eye anymore because a woman suddenly shows up. You are accepted, tolerated, are simply a colleague.”