Evelyne de Gruyter studied business administration at TU Berlin in the early 1990s and recalls the following incident from a seminar she attended: “The seminar was about different corporate forms, specifically limited partnerships with shares. The professor turned to the few women present and said ‘I am sure that you as women are familiar with the washing detergent producer Henkel.’ The inference was more than clear.” Thankfully, things have improved since then in terms of gender equality and no one teaching today would make inferences like this. However, if we look at the number of women working in leading positions within companies, it soon becomes clear that not all is well, and we are still far from achieving equal opportunities for women in business in the German economy. In 2022, the percentage of board members who were women in the 200 biggest German companies was just 15.6 per cent. This was one of the issues the Verband deutscher Unternehmerinnen e.V. (VdU) sought to address when it was set up. It represents more than 1,800 mainly medium-sized enterprises in industry, trade, commerce, and services led by women. Evelyne de Gruyter has been managing director of the association since 2020.
“I come from a business family and was interested in and passionate about entrepreneurship from an early age. That was ultimately why I chose to study business administration,” says Evelyne de Gruyter. While studying, she also completed a management trainee program at the Hotel InterContinental in the Tiergarten district of Berlin. “It was an exciting time just after the fall of the Wall. You had the feeling that the number of people studying business administration had doubled in the shortest of times, as many young people from the new federal states came to study at TU Berlin This represented a great challenge for the University, but it was also amazing because you suddenly came into contact with people from a completely different background,” she recalls. After her studies, she first worked for a year for a business consultancy in New York. She then returned to Germany and began working in the management of the hotel group owned by her family. “The difficulty of combining a career with family life in this sector was one of the reasons why I turned my back on a career here,” she says. After a break to have children and working in a number of other jobs in business, she was offered a position with the VdU. “It was completely by chance and ultimately due to networking. The president of the association back then was a good friend of mine and had always thought that my interest in political and social issues would make me a good fit for the association,” Evelyne tells us. At that time the VdU was looking for someone to work as head of press and PR and de Gruyter took up the challenge of a completely new working environment. Four years later, in 2020, she became managing director.
“What I find particularly interesting about this work is that it is at the interface of economics and politics. I enjoy bringing people together and seeing the effect this has. Representing political interests and developing networks are the core tasks of our association,” she explains. It is no coincidence that the headquarters are in central Berlin, just a few minutes from various ministries, the Bundestag, and other associations. Evelyne de Gruyter spends much of her time attending meetings in these locations. One of the VdU’s main tasks is campaigning for an increase in the proportion of women on company supervisory boards and management boards and, working together with other women's associations and parliamentarians, it has launched the "Bündnis der Berliner Erklärung" - a nation-wide alliance for equality. "We have been committed to achieving a higher proportion of women on supervisory boards for many years and we maintain a database of over 700 women who could be considered for such positions. Companies can contact us to request details of suitable female candidates," explains Evelyne de Gruyter.
A no less important aspect of her work is networking. "We offer a network and provide numerous events and meetings to help it flourish. Networking is and remains an infinitely important topic, and I have the impression that women still have some catching up to do here compared to men. Perhaps it's because women still mostly do the family work, and many simply don't have the time and energy to cultivate networks. VdU offers its members more than 300 events per year. Evelyne de Gruyter is currently in the middle of preparing for an important event celebrating the 70th anniversary of the association in 2024. Another welcome occasion for networking. Among those to already confirm their attendance is Olaf Scholz.
Author: Bettina Klotz