February 6, 2017 / 11:32 AM / 6 months ago

Audi's gender equality plea lacks horsepower

A model poses by the 2018 Audi S5 Cabriolet during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., January 10, 2017.Mark Blinch

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Audi on Sunday made an emotive plea for gender equality in its Super Bowl TV commercial, calling for equal pay for equal work. The cause is honourable. But as the German luxury carmaker's own tepid achievements show, action is harder than fine rhetoric.

While open wage discrimination has been outlawed in countries like the United States and Germany for decades, in reality women are still earning less. Even when taking education, sector choice and other factors into account, female workers in Germany in comparable jobs on average are paid 7 percent less per hour than male colleagues, official data shows. Only a small minority of corporate leaders are women.

Audi in December 2016 signed the White House equal pay pledge, and promises to review its pay policies. But while it has pledged since 2011 to hire more women, only 14.8 percent of the group's overall staff are female, compared with 17.3 percent at Daimler and 18.1 percent at BMW Group. Things are even bleaker at the top: just 8.9 percent of Audi managers are women, and none of its six executive board members.

Audi's male dominance can partly be explained by wider employment choices among young people. The carmaker is hiring a lot of engineers, a discipline where just 10 percent of graduates are female. Changing that won't be easy. Take female representation in German supervisory boards. Despite many self-commitments, the number of women on boards only started to increase significantly after the government enacted a 30 percent female quota in 2015.

As a consequence, 90 percent of the 200 largest German companies in 2016 had at least one woman on their supervisory board, compared to just 65 percent a decade ago. Yet a study by German economic think tank DIW Berlin also shows that companies which are already meeting the 30 percent threshold do not further increase the number of women on boards.

It's the German government, rather than the country's carmakers, which is also pioneering tighter rules against gender inequality. A new law agreed in January is going to increase inter-company transparency on pay for male and female workers. The German corporate lobby is fighting the new rules tooth and nail, undermining warm PR pledges.

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