Business

Is the German insult 'Raven mothers' holding back women at work?

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Media captionWatch: CEO Ines Kolmsee speaking to the BBC about German women's struggle for equality

Are you a raven mother? Maybe your wife is?

Either way, it is highly derogatory to be called "Rabenmutter" in Germany.

Scarcely a greater insult can be hurled by a man in a suit at a woman in a suit.

Ines Kolmsee knows how high the barriers are for women determined on getting to the top.

As chief executive of a big company, and a manufacturing one at that - SKW Stahl-Metallurgie, she is very rare in the top echelons of business.

"We have this expression, 'rabenmutter', which doesn't even exist in other languages. 'Ravenmother'. It means a bad mother and a woman who works is often considered a 'rabenmutter' in Germany."

Not the German way

Mrs Kolmsee thinks this explains why she is such a lone figure in German business.

"In Germany I do get questions - about me being female, about whether that could work," she says.

"Even in my engineering studies, I had professors who told me before exams that they thought a woman shouldn't be studying engineering."

Image caption Josef Ackermann said he hoped it would become 'prettier and more colourful' at the top

Mrs Kolmsee is married with children and shares the raising of them with her husband. They juggle their tight time to maintain a family life.

But it is not the German way.

"The whole family thing, that mothers should be there for their children, is ingrained in German society," she says.

"With that in mind, either women don't push a career so much or even if they want to do it they are held back by family and friends or people in the workplace."

'Prettier and more colourful'

One credible estimate, by the Institute for Economic Research, says no more than 2.2% of senior management jobs in the biggest German companies are taken by women.

This prompted the country's labour minister, Ursula von der Leyen, to suggest quotas, reserving 30% of leadership positions for women.

German business organisations opposed the idea.

They agreed that improvement is needed, but said that imposing the rule would make German business less competitive.

Their argument is that to force companies to give posts to people they would not otherwise choose is to make them choose a less suitable person.

Image caption Angela Merkel's rise to the top is not seen as typically German

One luminary of German business, Josef Ackermann, chief executive of Deutsche Bank, accepted that there are not many women at the top level, and none on the board of his company.

"But I hope it will be prettier and more colourful one day," he said - a statement that was not greeted with joy by those seeking to increase female involvement at the top.

Dual board system

The counter argument usually made by proponents of more female involvement is that a decade of voluntary change has not produced much change at all.

Ten years ago, the government came to an agreement with German business to increase the number of women at the top through voluntary means.

The critics say the change has been glacial.

Mrs Kolmsee concedes that quotas might be difficult for some companies, but thinks they could work in parts of German business.

Germany operates a dual board system.

Companies have a management board that includes the people who run the company on a day-to-day basis, people with technical skills such as those held by a chief financial officer.

The other board is the supervisory board, made up of 20 members in the biggest companies, and formed of 10 people elected by the shareholders and 10 by the trade unions.

Mrs Kolmsee thinks there are enough well qualified women to supply many more places on these supervisory boards.

Merkel 'not typical'

But mostly she thinks Germany needs a change of attitudes.

"I think you have to start involving men more in family life," she says.

"Then things will be easier on the women both at home and in the workplace.

"It would be normal then that someone leaves work at 5 or 6 o'clock to spend time with the children, and it's not just the women who want to do it but also the men."

One footnote: if you say to a German "but things can't be that bad because you have a German woman at the very top in Chancellor Merkel", they might respond by saying politics is different, and Mrs Merkel - like Margaret Thatcher in the UK - is not typical.

Mrs Merkel came from the East as the country was unifying at a time when the obvious man for the top job simply did not seem to be available.

"Mrs Merkel rose through the ranks in a very specific situation," says Mrs Kolmsee.

"She has a scientific background so she's not a typical German female.

"Just because right now there is a female chief executive of Germany Inc doesn't mean it's so much easier for women in politics in Germany."

Or business, she might have added.