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Can Quotas For Women Break A Central Bank's Glass Ceiling?

There's just one place the European Central Bank's gender requirements won't apply...

The European Central Bank, a gentlemen's club indeed
The European Central Bank, a gentlemen's club indeed
Andrea Rexer and Markus Zydra

FRANKFURT – The world of Bundesbank has long been dominated by men, with only one woman managing to reach the executive board of Germany's central bank since its founding more than five decades ago. Similarly, the European Central Bank (ECB) has appointed just two women to its supervisory board that was established in 1998.

Today, the ECB board, which sets all major policy on the euro, consists of 23 men — and not a single woman. It doesn’t look any better in the lower positions of the European Central Bank: Among the 14 chief executives in Frankfurt’s Euro Tower, there are only two women.

But this is set to change. The ECB wants to become more feminine, introducing a new quota for women to fill additional managerial vacancies — though it won't apply to the executive board. “By the end of 2019, we aim to have 35% of qualified women in middle management positions and 28% of women in senior management positions,” the German director of the ECB, Jörg Asmussen, told Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Doing so would double the number of women in managerial posts — right now, the number of women at middle and senior executive positions has stagnated at 17% and 14%, respectively. Though the Central Bank had made this decision a while ago, it is only now being made public.

No lack of female applicants

The women’s quota for managerial positions is the European Central Bank’s second attempt in recent weeks to improve its image and to open up for modernization. In late July the ECB had announced that it is set to publish the records of its council meetings, so that the wider public will find it easier to follow their decisions.

While overall, the ECB employs a more or less equal number of men and women, the gender roles in the upper management are unevenly spread. And indeed, it is almost only men who are calling the shots. This is why Asmussen believes that a number of things have to change in the Central Bank: “A paradigm shift among leaders in the ECB is essential to its success,” the ECB director says.

Make no mistake, in recent years there has been no lack of female applicants, and a number of women with career ambitions inside the ECB say they have faced discrimination. As such, Asmussen is optimistic that the ECB can achieve its self-imposed goals in the next six years, since there would be “sufficient highly qualified women” within the institution. He sees the introduction of a new banking supervision division with many new top jobs as one place top female leaders may end up.

Gertrude Tumpel-Gugerell of Austria is one of the few women who has made it to the top in the world of central banks. She is one of only two woman, along with her Finnish counterpart Sirkka Hämäläinen to have risen to be a member of the board of the ECB, serving from 2003 to 2011. She also believes that bosses are responsible when it comes to women in managerial positions: “It is essential to support women at an early stage and that senior executives clearly defend the advancement of women.” But she also indicates that the overall staff turnover in central banks is low, which is why it would take time for more women to rise to top positions.

Until now, many have been of the opinion that the situation in the past was partly the fault of the women themselves. “The experience shows that female candidates appear more reluctant and modest in job interviews and presentations,” said Stephen Keuning, the ECB's chief executive for personnel, budget and organization. Based on this, the ECB has introduced a volunteer-based mentoring program aimed at helping women to climb the institution's professional ladder.

Keuning is responsible for promoting diversity at the ECB. Diversity means variety, and these days, modern corporations fill their vacancies with people from various countries to achieve a plurality of knowledge. The ECB is not in short supply of international staff. But word has it that the timidity of many female applications is a result of male-dominated levels of decision making.

Best and brightest

But Keuning doesn’t believe that this is the heart of the matter and says that the selection panel of the ECB always consists of at least one or two female members.

But even with a women’s quota, the board of the ECB will not be able to change the constellation at the very top. This is because it is the politicians’ task to nominate both the directors of the ECB and the central bank's national bosses. The member-states of the Eurozone nominate candidates for the board, who must then be confirmed by the European Parliament. “When it comes to filling jobs in top-level management, the nationality of the applicants weighs higher than their gender,” says Tumpel-Gugerell. “Yet the charter clearly states that it must be about the best minds — and women are also part of that.”

In the most recent nomination of a director for the ECB, women yet again failed to claim a seat, causing great resentment within the European Parliament, which managed to delay the nomination of Luxembourg-born Yves Mersch. Still, in the end, they were not able to prevent his appointment.

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