Interview with Elke Heitmüller and Thore Masekowitz
On Christopher Street Day (CSD), the LGBTIQ* movement has been campaigning for tolerance and against discrimination for more than 40 years. This year, the demonstration will take place as an online event under the motto “Pride Live” in light of the corona pandemic. In an interview, Elke Heitmüller, Head of Diversity Management, and Thore Masekowitz, LGBTIQ* and friends network spokesperson, talk about Volkswagen’s involvement in the CSD movement and the importance of diversity within the company.
One year ago, Volkswagen supported CSD for the first time. Has diversity also become more important in everyday life?
Elke Heitmüller: Our offensive for respect, tolerance and living diversity is very visible in the company. This also has to do with the fact that we advertise this at events such as the CSD event. The LGBTIQ* and friends network is growing. Since CSD 2019, other Group brands such as SEAT have joined.
Thore Masekowitz: More and more heterosexual employees are also becoming involved in the network, which makes me very happy as a network representative. They want to work in a culture in which gender, origin and sexual orientation play no role. There is strong support for this.
How do you make it stick?
Elke Heitmüller: The Diversity Team receives many requests from colleagues who want to support our work. They want to know what they can do in their department. The requests come from all areas of the company.
Thore Masekowitz: Our “we drive proud” T-shirts are a good example. Employees recently launched a crowdfunding campaign for them. In addition, developers* from the Digital Lab in Berlin have designed a digital rainbow Volkswagen flag that can be placed over your own profile picture as a symbol of diversity, for example on Linkedin or Facebook.
However, this also sounds as if many employees are aware of deficits...
Elke Heitmüller: There is always room for improvement in an international company like Volkswagen. Not everywhere is society as liberal in its dealings with the LGBTIQ-community as in the USA, South Africa or Germany. There are 15 countries alone in which homosexuals face the death penalty. But even in Germany the situation is not always rosy.
Can you give examples?
Elke Heitmüller: It begins with jokes at the expense of colleagues who do not live like the majority. If nobody interferes and contradicts, then something is rotten. Sometimes it is not even meant badly – but it discriminates and hurts anyway.
Thore Masekowitz: Another example is unconscious discrimination by superiors. Many bosses, including female bosses, judge employees better if they are similar to them. Studies also show that a foreign sounding name significantly reduces the chances of success for applicants.
“Under the motto ‘diversity wins @ Volkswagen’ our diversity trainers have trained more than 7,000 managers worldwide to overcome unconscious prejudices.”
What is the company doing about this?
Elke Heitmüller:Under the motto “diversity wins @ Volkswagen”, our diversity trainers have trained more than 7,000 managers around the world to overcome unconscious prejudices. Unfortunately, the corona pandemic has led to delays, as such training courses work best when held in person. You have to look each other in the eyes and talk openly. We want to complete the training by 2022 at the latest. But that alone is not enough – there are clear rules. Our principles of conduct prohibit discriminatory behavior in any form. This applies to all employees worldwide.
Recently, Volkswagen apologized for an advertising video following accusations of racism. How does that fit in with your goals?
Elke Heitmüller: The promotional video does not fit our culture at all. The employees feel the same way, as the wave of indignation shows. The company has decided on consequences to exclude the production and publication of inappropriate content in the future. The discussion about the video has once again heightened sensitivity to discrimination and diversity.
“Diverse teams achieve better results because different perspectives are taken into account.”
The economy is in a deep crisis. Can companies afford the commitment to diversity during this period?
Elke Heitmüller: Diversity is not a cost factor, but a business case. Diverse teams achieve better results because different perspectives are taken into account. Those who fear discrimination spend a lot of energy to hide their private life from colleagues. Imagine having to make up a story every Monday about what you did over the weekend. That costs energy, which is missing for work. Prejudices also lead to the fact that not all employees are optimally supported. As a result, talents remain unused – to the detriment of the employees and the company. Diversity is a strong competitive advantage.
Due to the corona pandemic, CSD 2020 will be digital. How is Volkswagen participating?
Thore Masekowitz: We have recorded video messages from employees who talk about their experiences with tolerance in the workplace. In this way we want to encourage colleagues to commit themselves to their diverse life choices. It is estimated that around 7 percent of all people in Germany do not define themselves as heterosexual. That would be several thousand colleagues.
What do you want to have achieved in one year from now?
Thore Masekowitz: We want to further expand the open dialogue within the company. Our network makes an important contribution to this. I would be delighted if the network for CSD 2021 were represented across all brands and visible at regional events.
Elke Heitmüller: True diversity is only achieved when the right person is in the right place at the right time – regardless of gender, cultural background, sexual orientation, religion or other characteristics. If we can achieve this in the long term, we have done a good job.
LGBTIQ is the abbreviation adopted from Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Transgender, Intersex, Queer. The abbreviation comes from the USA and also became popular in Germany. It briefly and concisely describes people who deviate from the heterosexual norm because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or body.