Why do we always have to do things the harder way?


Bettina Nickel is a German lawyer and deputy director of the Catholic Bureau Bavaria, an entity representing the interests of seven Bavarian dioceses in relation to the German state of Bavaria. She is convinced that we have to use quotas as one of the key tools in bringing more women to leadership positions within the Catholic Church.

In June, Voices of Faith participated in FrauenForum, a gathering of Catholic women in Germany initiated by the Hildegardis Association, an organization which provides academic support and career development for women. In a workshop on leadership, we asked a group of young women in their 20s and 30s how many of them were in favour of quotas for women in Church organizations. The hands of all but one of these aspiring leaders flew up. Intrigued by such an overwhelming support for this strategy of reserving a certain percentage of open positions only for women candidates, we sat down with Ms. Bettina Nickel, one of the facilitators of the workshop.

“Of course, women can come to leadership positions even without quotas, but why do we always have to pick the more difficult way?” asked Nickel at the beginning of our conversation and continued, “why shouldn’t women support each other and why shouldn’t the top leadership of the Church support and promote women? We don’t always have to take the most difficult path.”

Nickel came to work for the Church Bureau in Bavaria in 2005 after several years of legal practice in a law firm. “I missed the unifying aspect of a work that has a deeper purpose and was fascinated by the combination of legal work, policy and Church engagement,” she remembers. Was it harder for her to get this job as a woman? She recalls that she was lucky. Initially, only four male candidates were invited for the interviews from the pool of 80 applicants for the position. But the former Director of the Catholic Bureau Fr. Doering insisted that at least one woman must be invited. Ms. Nickel was that woman and during her interview, she convinced the search committee that she was the right person for the job. This personal experience illustrates for her that establishing a specific proportions of leadership positions reserved for women is a meaningful intervention.

But before we discussed quotas more in detail, we asked her why it is important at all that women are represented in visible positions of leadership in the Church?

Nickel recounted the research-proven points: mixed teams of women and men perform better than purely male or purely female teams; women need role models to whom they can relate. “The issue is not only to win something for women but we have to understand that it is a gain for the whole organization, or in our case for the Church, and that when women are not part of leadership, specific experiences and perceptions are lost to the Church,” argues Nickel. Aside from that, “eighty percent of volunteers within the Catholic Church in Germany are women and chanceries also have a high percentage of female employees. It is a lost opportunity that this female face of our Church is not more visible through the leaders that represent the Church to the public.”

So how can quotas help? As an example, Nickel describes how quotas increased the numbers of female candidates in German political parties. “Some parties established internal quotas for women and we can see that it has brought the numbers of their female candidates to 50 or 40 percent. We are not seeing the same effect in parties which did not adopt quotas.”

“Quotas will not work without other programs preparing women for leadership,” warns Nickel, “we have to be very intentional in bringing women to leadership. We cannot concentrate just on bringing a few exceptional women to top leadership, we have to make sure that enough women are also leading in the middle managerial positions and that programs supporting women at this level are part of our strategies because these women are the reservoir of future top leaders.”

What could this look like concretely? “The Church could declare at the level of the Bishop’s conference that in each diocese the Church commits itself to filling leadership positions to 50 percent, 40 percent or even just one third with female candidates. The Church can also commit to creating specific support programs for women, as the German Bishop’s Conference has already partially done. These programs have then also be properly evaluated and repeated,” explains Nickel. She points out the example of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising led by Cardinal Marx. According to Nickel, Cardinal Marx himself made sure that the highest positions in the diocese open to laity are equally staffed by women and men. Now, the middle management positions need to follow.

And what is Nickel’s response to the common criticism that quotas bring women with mediocre skills to leadership positions? “Yes, when we have so many mediocre women leaders as we have mediocre male leaders right now, we can rethink if we need quotas,” she laughs, “ but why are we so worried about possibly having women who are not sufficiently qualified when we daily deal with men who are leaders without sufficient qualifications and accept them as part of the workplace reality.”