Survey examines women's representation on works councils and equal treatment at company level

One of the aims of the 2001 reform of the German Works Constitution Act was to promote equal opportunities for men and women at company level. Alongside provisions geared towards improving the representation of women on works councils, the reform made the equal treatment of women at company level an objective for works councils, as well as making the reconciliation of work and family life a key area of their activity. The findings of the Institute for Economic and Social Research's third works and staff council survey, presented in March 2003, provide initial information on how this legal reform is being put into practice.

In March 2003, the Institute for Economic and Social Research within the Hans Böckler Foundation (Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaftliches Institut in der Hans-Böckler-Stiftung, WSI) presented the first results of its third works and staff council survey (published in a special issue of WSI-Mitteilungen, Vol. 56, No. 3, 2003). The survey was carried out in summer 2002 and included a representative sample of establishments with 20 or more employees. The principal aim of the survey is to give a current overview of the situation of works council s and (public sector) staff council s in Germany and to monitor industrial relations at establishment level. A special evaluation of the survey data provides information on implementation of the 2001 reform of the Works Constitution Act (Betriebsverfassungsgesetz, BetrVG) (DE0107234F) with regard to the promotion of the representation of women on works councils and of equal opportunities for men and women at company level ('Gleichstellung von Frauen und Männern in der betrieblichen Interessenvertretung', Christina Klenner and Christiane Lindecke, in WSI-Mitteilungen, Vol. 56, No. 3, 2003).

Gender representation on works councils

The reformed Works Constitution Act includes an amended Section 15, which governs the composition of the works council on the basis of the type of employment and gender. Section 15 Para. 2 of the BetrVG states: 'The gender that is in the minority in the workforce must be represented on the works council at least in proportion to their numerical share in the workforce if the works council is made up of at least three members.' As women constitute the minority in most companies, this rule should result in a greater representation of women on works councils.

The WSI survey found that this 'minimum quota' provision for the minority gender was observed in 69.5% of companies examined - see table 1 below. In 15.8% of companies this provision was not observed, and about one in seven works councils provided no information on this point. In the construction industry, compliance with the legal regulations was far lower than the average, while adherence to the quota provision was highest in the consumer goods sector. The main reasons given by respondents for non-compliance with the minimum quota regulation were that there were no candidates of the minority gender or that the percentage of women was too small.

Table 1. Compliance with the minimum gender quota in works council elections, 2002 (%)
Minimum quota fulfilled? Total Primary industry Consumer goods Construction Commerce Finance
Yes 69.5 69.2 74.4 47.2 73.0 73.4
No 15.8 16.9 17.5 41.9 12.6 6.7
No response 14.6 13.9 8.1 11.0 14.4 19.9

Source: WSI works and staff council survey (3rd survey), 2002.

When asked to identify problems associated with the reformed works council election procedure (DE0305202F), however, a considerable number of respondents cited the minimum quota and expressed criticism or even disapproval of this provision.

The percentage of women among works council members has increased. According to the WSI survey, 30.6% of newly elected works council members in 2002 were women. The percentage of women on the works council had increased in 43.5% of the companies and had remained unchanged in about the same percentage. In 9.6% of companies, however, the percentage had fallen - see table 2 below.

Table 2. Change in proportion of women on works councils, 2002 election compared with previous election (%)
No. of women on works council in 2002 is: Total Primary industry Consumer goods Construction Commerce Finance
Higher 43.5 45.6 45.5 30.1 39.0 34.9
Lower 9.6 7.8 8.8 10.2 13.1 15.3
The same 44.1 44.3 44.0 57.8 44.7 46.4
No response 2.9 2.3 1.7 1.9 3.3 3.4

Source: WSI works and staff council survey (3rd survey), 2002.

In the male-dominated primary materials and consumer goods industry and to a lesser extent in construction, the minimum quota provision appears to have promoted more widespread representation of women (see table 2 above). However, the percentage of women on works councils has also increased considerably in the commerce sector, where women account for an above-average share of the overall workforce.

It is above all in the larger companies that women have achieved a higher level of representation, and more so in western Germany than in eastern Germany. However, the data do not allow an assessment of the degree to which these findings reflect a general trend in society – in other words, whether the same trend would have been observed had it not been for the new legal regulations.

The chairs of works councils, however, are still mainly men: women are found far less frequently in these positions and head the works council in fewer than one in five companies (18.9%). This percentage has remained basically unchanged when compared with the findings of the second WSI works and staff council survey conducted in 1999/2000. Women are more frequently found as works council chairs in companies where they make up a high percentage of the workforce – in sectors such as commerce, banking and insurance and the other service sectors. Nevertheless, even in these sectors, women account on average for a maximum of one in three works council chairs.

Promotion of gender equality by works councils

The obligation on works councils to take measures to promote equality of men and women (Section 80 No. 2 of the BetrVG) was amended in 2001 with an obligation actively to promote the reconciliation of work and family life. The 2002 WSI survey asked what importance works council members attach to both tasks – women’s rights and gender equality policy – and how corresponding measures are implemented at company level.

In 157 out of a total of 1,730 companies in the sample, the works council had concluded works agreement s geared to the promotion of women's situation in employment or gender equality. This means that 'promotion of women/gender equality' came bottom of the survey's list of 10 potential areas of activity governed by works agreements. While in western Germany 10.2% of works councils in the sample reported such works agreements, this applied to only 4.8% of companies in eastern Germany. Such works agreements are predominantly found in large companies. Over 50% of works councils reporting a works agreement on the promotion of women were found in companies with over 1,000 employees.

A breakdown according to the trade unions concerned shows that the largest number in the sample of company-level agreements concerning the promotion of women is to be found in the sectors covered by the United Services Union (Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft, ver.di) and the German Metalworkers' Union (Industriegewerkschaft Metall, IG Metall).

Works council views on reconciling work and family life

An indicator of the attitude of work councils towards the issue of reconciling work and family life is provided by the survey question: in which area of activity does the work council see the greatest need for action by the collective bargaining parties in the coming years?

Of 20 possible answers, the question of reconciling work and family life ranks eighth overall. More than half of respondents believe that the question of reconciling work and family life is an important field of action for the collective bargaining parties. In western Germany, this issue is seen as being more important than it is in eastern Germany. Differentiation according to size of company shows only minor variations in the assessments of work councils.

The gender make-up of the company plays a greater role - 61.8% of respondents in companies with a majority of female employees consider the issue of reconciling work and family life to be an important field of action for collective bargaining policy, in contrast to only 46.2% of respondents in companies with a predominantly male workforce. As might be expected, 59.8% of female works council chairs consider reconciling work and family life to be an issue for future bargaining - this figure is almost 11 percentage points higher than among their male counterparts.

Commentary

The new provisions in the Works Constitution Act on the proportional representation of women and men on works councils have been implemented in the majority of companies. The percentage of women on works councils has increased in a large number of companies. It seems fair to attribute this outcome at least in part to the minimum quota stipulations. When it comes to chairing the works councils, however, women remain under-represented.

Measures in favour of the promotion of women or to promote gender equality have been agreed upon to date in only one in 10 of the surveyed companies and these issues are bottom of the list when it comes to works agreements. Obviously there has been some progress in recent years as far as gender equality and the promotion of women at company level are concerned, but a lot more remains to be done. (Heiner Dribbusch, Institute for Economic and Social Research, WSI)

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