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That's unfair too!

By JAN-MARTIN WIARDA

Women are treated preferentially in recruiting. Young men are losing out. A polemic.

That's unfair too!© john krempl - Photocase.com"In the event of equivalent suitability, female candidates will be given preferential consideration" - but why?
Two months ago, Die ZEIT printed a cover story on the long overdue professional advancement of women. It could, the article claimed, prove to be a good thing even for men: "The educational success of women comes in a phase when the available amount of well-educated workers has shrunk by 250,000 in four years and when many men would like to work less and the majority of women would prefer to work more." Everyone's a winner, no-one loses? What a prospect.

Two days later I met up with a good friend of mine in the pub: graduate of a journalism school, 32 years old, married, father of a small daughter. He had just read the ZEIT cover story, he said by way of greeting. That was all. This friend, let's call him Max, had been searching for permanent employment for years. Unsuccessfully. He gets by, mainly thanks to his wife, who has a job as a PR consultant; he's a meticulous researcher; he writes entertainingly, sometimes brilliantly. His problem? "I'm not a woman", he says.

They do exist, the losers in the rise of young women. They are the young men who now find themselves paying for the mistakes of the old. The mistakes of the old men who still rule the boardrooms of corporations and administrative bodies, who still largely determine the fate of this country among themselves. These old boys increasingly have a bad conscience. And because of course they don't want to abolish themselves and their buddies, they are concentrating their selling of indulgences on the generation of career starters. And suddenly hiring one young woman after another.

Embarking on an academic career now, as a man? Risky, says the professor

There's no question about it: as long as they are less able than their female competitors, there's absolutely nothing wrong with young men being less successful in seeking employment. But that isn't the only factor. After all, there's barely a company left that doesn't have a special advancement programme for women, barely a CEO who isn't now getting down to making good on what was for all too long an empty promise: "In the event of equivalent suitability, female candidates will be given preferential consideration." And they are - no matter the cost. The "female" selection has meanwhile become the most popular preselection function, reports the operator of an online jobsite where companies can specifically search for university graduates. Some companies go so far as to give women a second chance if they fail an interview, while men can scupper their chances with one wrong word. And the professor of business administration at a university in southern Germany advises his doctoral candidates against a career in higher education with the words: "The universities have to massively increase their quota of female professors; as a man you barely stand a chance in the next couple of years."

Some of the hard statistical facts are also striking: In the Federal Administration's higher intermediate service women already account for 58% of career entrants (among older managers however they make up only one sixth); Deutsche Telekom in turn prides itself on the fact that its newly recruited "top junior executives" are now 52% female. And Die ZEIT? 65% of new editors hired in the past five years were female. By comparison, women make up a little over a third of the 137 staff writers, but only a sixth of the heads of department are female - a whole lot of bad conscience in established males that is yearning to be soothed. My friend Max hadn't heard these figures until last week. But he experiences them every day as he plans his career. The discovery that in many jobs different expectations are placed on women than on men - in favour of women - is however not really new.

Felix, 28, was caught out two years ago in the Berlin police force, despite an excellent degree in political science. During the aptitude test he ran the mandatory two kilometres in 9:25 minutes - and was out. Five seconds too slow. A co-applicant who dragged herself across the finish line one and a half minutes after him wasn't: for her the limit was 11:20 minutes. When the trainer shruggingly comforted him that that was "just the way it is" because they desperately needed more women in the force, it got too much for Felix. "This is all a load of crap", he fumed. Incidentally, in the state of Berlin the proportion of women among aspiring civil servants is already 53% - although only just under 49% of all under-30s in Germany are female.

It's a myth that women have better exam grades

It's not always a good idea to have one's eye on the magical 50% line elsewhere either, because, at the risk of sounding nonsensical and at first even chauvinist: in some industries a female quota of 20% is already too high. Just look at mechanical engineers. According to the Higher Education Information System (Hochschul-Informations-System, HIS), 87% percent of graduates in the class of 2005 were male, while - unfortunately - only 13% were female.

So how can it be that in some automotive companies over a fifth of newly recruited engineers are women? It's possible that some coincidence has resulted in the elite of female engineers exclusively clustering there. A more likely assumption is however that human resources managers like increasing their female quota - even if it means that many a better man loses out. Perhaps the fervour with which they are suddenly tackling the advancement of women also has something to do with the fact that on average men are still more expensive - they more rarely allow themselves to be fobbed off with too low starting salaries. "So what?", you could say, "it's good that women are finally getting a chance, it's balancing out all the life chances that were denied them in the past!" But is it really acceptable to replace one unfairness with another? Because that it is unfair becomes obvious at the very latest when one accepts that in terms of ability there are no systematic differences between women and men.

Incidentally, this is something that those women will also have to accept who perpetuate the myth that on average women have better exam grades. It isn't true, any more than it is true that society as a whole benefits from the preferential treatment of young women. These days there is much talk of a future shortage of skilled workers, but as long as there is even a single unemployed person with vocational training or an academic degree the motto must be: the job goes to the best man or woman. Anything else is a waste of talent - and in the end harms us all. Including women. If you consider the implications of this one-sided recruiting practice in the long term, a new imbalance might even arise on the labour market which would not differ significantly from the current situation - except that then women would make up the majority of permanent employees and share the top positions among themselves. Would that be the fulfilment of our dreams of equality?

Of course it won't come to that. The skills shortage will give most qualified young people a chance in just a few years. And the old boys' networks will still work. The mass entry of women - and that's all it is - is by no means synonymous with their advancement on a massive scale, as can already be seen by the fact that a "female quota" is still unheard-of in most boardrooms. And that's precisely the point: the old boys' club enthroned at the top must finally start sharing its power. To claim that there are not enough qualified women for the top jobs is just as wrong as to instead defend the disadvantaging of young men.

My friend Max, by the way, has come to terms with his situation. He lives his life as a freelance journalist like many others, both men and women. He tries, he says, not to think too much about the fact that some of his female classmates from journalism school are now reporters at Spiegel magazine or fill column inches as foreign correspondents in Asia. He is pleased about his wife's professional success and happy to have a lot of time for his daughter. "It's just", he says, "that I would have preferred to choose this life voluntarily."

From DIE ZEIT