Report , News of 27 March 2015

SOEP People: Five questions to Elke Holst

Elke Holst has been Research Director of Gender Studies at DIW Berlin since 2010; her position became part of the DIW Berlin Executive Board in 2012. According to the F.A.Z. ranking, Holst is considered one of Germany’s most influential economists. Elke Holst was a Senior Economist in the SOEP from 1990 to 2012. Her research in the SOEP focused primarily on gender gap on the labor market. We talked to her at DIW Berlin. The interview (in German) was filmed for the “SOEP People” video series and released on March 20, Equal Pay Day.

1.)    Gender has been the focus of your research for more than two decades. How did you arrive at this topic?

It started when I was young. I was one of just a few girls in the science track at high school (Gymnasium) and later also one of the few women in economics at the University. Also I realized that the jobs I was interested in were mainly held by men. I initially wanted to become a civil engineer. The idea of ensuring that buildings are structurally sound and that high-rises are constructed safely fascinated me. I found out about the realities of being a woman on a construction site during an internship, and that diminished my enthusiasm for the field. It was the intense interest I had in the economic outcomes of individual behavior that finally led me to study economics. At some point I could not avoid the questions: Why is it that the material situation of women is so much worse than that of men? Why are there so many women with low incomes and so few women with high incomes? Why do women so often work in service jobs while men tend to hold the decision-making positions? What does that mean for our society, for everyday life?

2.)    What’s been your most surprising research finding so far?

I recognized that even the most interesting findings from in-depth analyses of gender differences on the labor market found relatively little resonance among researchers, policy makers, or the public at large. In the early 2000s, I had the idea of publishing a simple indicator that anyone could understand and even reproduce themselves: the percentage of women in top management and on the supervisory boards of a large number of major corporations in Germany. This simple indicator made it clear that women were almost entirely absent in the top positions in the economy. It took a few years for the public to really pick up on these alarming findings, but finally, when a quota was introduced in Norway, interest in the topic exploded. Since then, the media have been reporting extensively on the situation of men and women in management positions. Interest groups took up the topic, and now Germany even has a law introducing a gender quota on the supervisory boards of large publicly traded companies. That simple indicator on the percentage of women in top management bodies also brought more attention to our more in-depth studies on the causes of women’s lower chances of promotion and lower earnings based on SOEP. Such in-depth studies are very important for good policy advice.

3.)    You have been working with SOEP data since the early 1990s. Why do you find these data so interesting?

The SOEP is an extraordinarily important and interesting dataset. It offers a treasure-trove of objective and subjective indicators for research on life in Germany. I personally am interested mainly in labor market questions: What causes someone to take a job, and what determines how many hours they work? What individual and structural characteristics determine people’s earnings? How does it happen that men earn more than women? Why do women end up in management positions less frequently than men? With the SOEP you can also study how these outcomes are related to changes in the household. Do successful men tend to have successful women as partners? And what about successful women? Which types of relationship constellations encourage and which ones discourage women’s financial independence?

4.)    You’re now a successful gender researcher. What has helped you in your professional life?

I had a crucial experience that has always driven me to want to succeed: I went to school in the 1960s and early 1970s. There were a lot of protests and demonstrations, and it was all very exciting. So it often happened that I skipped part of the school day, and occasionally I got a warning letter. This annoyed my father immensely. What bothered him most of all was that I wasn’t using my potential. And then one day he made the momentous statement: “Elke, you don’t have to keep going to academic-track high school—it’s enough for you to go secretarial school.” I realized that it’s important and a gift to be able to use your potential to learn. It also sparked my ambition.

5.)    What’s your advice to young women who want to pursue a research career?

It’s important to know the rules of the game in research. To get a good job, it’s important to have good publications. Networking also shouldn’t be underestimated. Mobility and experience abroad are also beneficial for a career. But at the same time, a woman shouldn’t put pressure on herself to be the epitome of perfection. You can’t change the world alone. But women can join together in interest groups with other women—and also with supportive men—to work toward equal career opportunities for women and men.