Moving Boundaries

‘Diversity Doesn’t Mean That the Differences Disappear’

Women make up a large majority of the workforce in the trade sector. Yet female executives are rare. Laura Halfas of METRO and Matthias Klückmann of the Schwarz group of companies discuss ways to change this and how networks such as LEAD are helping.

Matthias, why and how can retail in particular benefit from having more women in leadership roles?

Matthias: Women make up half of the world’s population. For a retail operation, that alone is enough to cast doubt on the strategy of having men make all the decisions about products, outlet design and marketing. For me, it’s not even about the question of whether or why we want or need more women in leadership positions. Every company wants the best, and looking for them in only one half of the population isn’t logical, even in purely statistical terms. If companies want to be successful in future, they have to be versatile and agile. With a workforce or a management team that is homogenous and simply keeps shouting the same solutions at each other as if they were in an echo chamber, that’s not possible.
What has changed since the establishment of the retailer network and the Retail Round Table?

Laura: We launched the Retail Round Table in Germany in November 2019. The idea was born following a LEAD Network event. We realised that the issue of women in leadership positions on the sales floor was still in its infancy, especially in retail in Germany. Since starting the group, I think we have been able to generate quite a few lightbulb moments and awareness for this issue.

Matthias: I sensed a tremendous openness at our meeting. We are all moving in the same industry sector, have similar structures and consequently face similar challenges. Over and above that, the participants also share the goal of promoting inclusion and diversity. I think that this bond has enabled us to talk so openly amongst ourselves about successful approaches and solutions. In a fiercely competitive industry sector, that is an initial success.


METRO has been a member of the LEAD Network since 2016. This European network aims to advance women in leadership roles in retail and the consumer goods industry. The acronym LEAD stands for Leading Executives Advancing Diversity. Their mission is to attract women to the industry and support them actively along their career path, helping them gain qualifications and pursue executive development.
There have been many studies of women’s leadership qualities, and currently of leadership during the crisis. How is the network handling that?

Matthias: The LEAD Network reacted to the Covid-19 situation very quickly. In the individual countries and throughout Europe, they developed webinars, for example, about how leadership can continue to succeed under the current conditions. We realised that we aren’t alone with our problems and questions. LEAD gave everyone in the network the opportunity to talk about them and get our arms around the situation together. In my opinion, these events showed that the leadership qualities most women possess are a real advantage, especially in the situation we are experiencing now. Many women had already had to acquire certain skills to be successful, such as the ability to prioritise and organise in order to cope with the double burden of having a job and caring for children, which still mostly affects women. But you also have to remember that women in general make up a large percentage of the workforce in our industry sector, such as in the outlets, and some of them have been exposed to far greater burdens since March 2020. This is where I think leadership goes beyond responsibility as a supervisor. Everyone can make a huge contribution by acting as a role model or motivating their colleagues.

About … Matthias Klückmann

Matthias Klückmann began his career as a research assistant at the University of Tübingen. There, he worked on the question of how people deal with immigration-related diversity in their everyday lives. During that time, he was also his institute’s equal opportunities officer. In 2015, Matthias Klückmann joined the international HR department at Lidl, where inclusion and diversity as well as the work-family balance were important aspects of his job. At the end of 2020, he moved to the Schwarz group of companies, where he now focuses on the digital HR transformation.

Women make up half of the world’s population. For a retail operation, that alone is enough to cast doubt on the strategy of having men make all the decisions about products, outlet design and marketing.

Matthias Klückmann, Rollout Manager Digital HR Transformation at the Schwarz group of companies
What country has come the furthest in terms of women in leadership roles?

Matthias: Norway was one of the first countries to set a quota for women on supervisory boards, which soon resulted in a rate of nearly 40% of women on supervisory boards. Unfortunately, at the levels below that, there was not always much change. In my experience, countries with a longer history of women in the workforce often have more women in all areas of the economy. Bulgaria, for example, has the highest percentage of women in IT jobs in all of Europe. You can also see this historic effect in the Baltic countries. In my view, the corporate culture is even more important than the country. If you have an open corporate culture that takes inclusion seriously, you can also be successful in countries where the social roles are still very traditional. And it’s true the other way round as well, that a very progressive society doesn’t help much if a corporate culture is dominated by presenteeism.
Laura, what are the major challenges to ensuring that women not only advance to leadership positions in retail but are also valued?

Laura: That is a big question that we could talk about for hours. Let me highlight 3 points. Firstly, operating business, where we haven’t seen many women in leadership roles thus far, calls for an especially high degree of flexibility. The job that represents the next rung on the career ladder may not be where you currently live, so you have to relocate or accept a longer commute. And the working hours that are a factor of the long store opening times in retail are not necessarily family friendly. More flexible conditions need to be created here. Secondly, when I talk with women about their careers, I often notice that they don’t think big in terms of their career goals. They limit themselves because certain things are not possible under today’s conditions rather than widening their lens, changing their perspective and taking things as they come. I would like to see a great deal more self-confidence here. A third major issue is the society we live in. Matthias mentioned the example of Norway. In Germany, for instance, we are still very traditional. A female CEO? A mother who goes back to work soon after the birth of her child? A man who stays home or works part time? A man who works as an early years teacher? These are all still very rare and not entirely accepted by society. Here, I hope to see more role models taking a public stance. More openness and reflection in cases where we find we have preconceptions yet again.

Matthias, you have been involved with the issue of diversity and inclusion for quite some time. Do you think there can be a world in which gender, skin colour and sexual orientation truly do not matter and all that counts are a person’s qualifications for a job?

Matthias: Yes, I am confident of that, at least as far as the second part of the question goes. Today, there are already plenty of methods that show how to minimise bias in the selection process so that the focus is on qualifications. As far as the beginning of the question, however, I want us to live in a world where differences still do play a role. After all, diversity isn’t about making these differences disappear. Sexual orientation is a striking example. Companies often claim that that plays no role and then when you listen more closely, you realise that the reason it plays no role is that nobody talks about it, and some people even invent fake double lives. To my mind, the next step would be to make the processes that smooth out the differences obsolete, so we can be who we are and the focus is on our performance.

About … Laura Halfas

Laura Halfas worked for various retail and consulting companies before joining METRO in 2008. She started out in the IT area of Supply Chain Management and later switched to Customer Marketing IT. After 7 years, Laura Halfas became Head of eCommerce, Marketing Operations & Traceability. At the end of 2017, she stepped into the role of Head of Corporate Responsibility. In that position, she focused on diversity and inclusion as well as corporate citizenship. In April 2020, she moved to Corporate HR at METRO AG as Head of Global Diversity & Inclusion, where she reports directly to the CHRO. Outside of her job, Laura Halfas is a systemic business coach for women.
Laura, how did you get so involved with diversity and inclusion?

Equality is what drives me. I started to get involved with the issue of gender equality when I was an IT executive and pregnant. I went back to work full time as soon as I was legally permitted after giving birth, and my husband stayed home to care for our daughter. Many people in our orbit couldn’t get their heads around this role reversal, and still can’t. I kept noticing that there are still unwritten rules about traditional roles. And I wondered where all the women from my school days, my trainee years and university were. I want everyone to be able to pursue their goals and achieve them. Over time, I’ve seen that there are still additional areas where equality does not exist. I want us not to have to talk about diversity and inclusion in 10 years’ time because we’ll be living them. Throughout our entire society. However, LGBT+, for example, is not yet part of the conversation everywhere, not by a long shot. People still experience discrimination. I want to change that.

While you’re advancing women, how do you manage not to go too far the other way and discriminate against men?

The only way to get on top of this is to work together. That’s why it’s important to me to get men involved and show them how they will benefit from it. Of course, we are often asked why we have a development programme only for women at METRO. It’s not about putting men at a disadvantage but about creating equal opportunities. We realised that we were missing a strong female talent pipeline, especially in the operating business. With this programme, we are ensuring balanced succession planning, creating a platform for female talent and supporting our high-potential women in their career plans and along the path to the executive level.
Matthias, in a network for equal opportunity for women, you normally expect to find … women. As a man, what prompted you to get involved in this issue?

That question always reminds me of Friedhelm Farthmann, the first women’s representative in Germany’s Social Democratic Party. At the time, he answered a similar question by saying that the environment representative wasn’t a tree, either. Joking aside, I think the whole point of diversity is encountering people whose life experiences are different from mine and each side learning from the conversation. I can only effect change in myself and actively shape my world by learning from others and being able to put myself in their shoes. That’s the only way I can find out to what extent my actions annoy or offend other people, or where barriers exist that I don’t notice at all. As a man in a network for gender justice, I feel it’s also about allyship – forming a bond with people who are discriminated against or marginalised. I think it’s important to know that there are people who will stand up for you, who have your back, without their being in the same situation or necessarily having experienced the same thing, but simply because they believe in the principle.

It’s not about putting men at a disadvantage but about creating equal opportunities

Laura Halfas, Head of Global Diversity & Inclusionat METRO AG

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