Team success is not a gender issue


Good design knows no gender. When the designers at PHOENIX created the Intra conference chair for Wilkhahn, that was precisely the idea: a conference chair that breaks through hierarchies and challenges gender stereotypes. The organic shapes, comfortable upholstery and integrated controls symbolize a modern understanding of management culture. This is why Intra was initially only available with a low backrest. There should be no throne in a conference, only equal participants. The fact that the 295 range has now been expanded to include two models with a high back is symbolic of the fact that our society has not yet overcome outdated structures. This is proving to be a key challenge in personal and professional development, especially for women.

Making decisions together: Julia Wilkening-Martin and Christoph Baron worked side by side on the project. Photo: Ludwig Schoepfer/StudioTusch

For more than a century, International Women’s Day has drawn attention to women’s rights and called for gender equality. To mark the occasion, we worked with Phoenix Design to create individual pieces for Intra. Structured and organic, bold and individual, wrapped and impulsive – the new color and material combinations reflect the original design idea through the image of a confident and determined woman.

A decisive factor for a fair and inclusive society is gender equality in the world of work. Julia Wilkening-Martin, Head of International Client Projects and member of the Advisory Board at Wilkhahn, was responsible for implementing the PHOENIX designs together with her team. As a woman, mother and in a management position, we asked her about her personal experiences and why the key seats are still so unequally occupied between women and men. Because: Every seat holds a story worth sharing …

Mrs. Wilkening-Martin, you are a wife, mother and manager at Wilkhahn. What challenges have you had to overcome along the way?

I honestly didn’t ask myself this question at the beginning of my career. So: what social expectations could prove difficult for me as a woman? I only realized that it was mainly youthful naivety, but also the fact that my parents didn’t convey these concerns to me, when I started working in Germany. In England, being a woman, becoming a mother and taking on responsibility was not an issue. Even my childminder never gave me the feeling that I was neglecting my child. The term “raven mother” doesn’t exist there, but rather the understanding: childminders are trained to look after your children and you are trained to do your job in the meantime. In England, after the official maternity leave, you also dramatically forgo money. That’s why there were very few women in my circle of friends who stayed at home longer.

I also didn’t experience the phenomenon of “momshaming” in London. Having to explain to other mothers why you have children and want to continue working full-time and achieve a management position. And at the same time making it clear that as a woman and mother you can perform just as well as your male colleagues. Maybe even more, because you have to be more efficient.

However, it is not only a challenge to conform to this social image, but also to automatically accept the associated role: the caring mother who naturally puts her career on the back burner. What I always found difficult were the fundamental doubts: Is that even possible with children? I don’t think my husband was ever asked that.

The compatibility of child and career is therefore a problem that is put directly at women from many sides. And all you can do at the end of the day is listen to your gut and your mind and go your own way.


So you would say that men in a father role are not confronted with these doubts?

The role of father often seems to be perceived differently to me. Example: If an appointment takes longer and a woman has to leave to pick up the children, she is often accused of poor time management and perhaps also unreliability. If men leave meetings for the same reason, the reaction is often more positive because “he cares”. Of course, this is a complete exaggeration, but I believe that this is still true at its core. Boards of directors and management are still heavily occupied by men who have grown up with a stereotypical distribution of roles, so this naturally influences behavior. This is why mothers are often pigeonholed as “not fully resilient” in the workplace – regardless of their professional skills.

Julia Wilkening-Martin selects fabrics and surfaces to match the moodboard for Intra from PHOENIX. Photo: Ludwig Schoepfer/StudioTusch
As head of Wilkhahn's project department, she and her team implement complex international customer projects. Photo: Ludwig Schoepfer/StudioTusch

Brain research and neuroscience repeatedly show that women and men are naturally equipped with different skills. How can women in management positions in particular positively change the world of work?

My personal experience with women in management positions is that women can act in a goal-oriented and less motive-oriented way. This is a very general statement for very individual personalities, but I have often experienced that women have the ability to take a step back and work towards the goal, especially in critical moments, instead of putting themselves in the foreground and trying to push through their own ideas. Especially in times of crisis, it is important to focus on the cause and not on personal motives.

There are also several studies that show that women are ahead of men when it comes to leadership-related emotional and social skills. I think that’s why companies that employ women in management positions are often more diverse. In my experience, women tend to focus more on the human and professional fit for the team or company than on a person’s CV or self-promotion. Men do that too, no question. But overall, women are very competent at building harmonious and efficient teams.


You manage your own team at Wilkhahn. Which role models or mentors have helped you in your personal and professional development?

I would have loved to say: Yes, there was this one person, preferably a woman of course, who was my role model, who I could follow – but, unfortunately, no. That also makes me a little sad, because I believe that mentors are very important. There were of course people, both female and male, who I perceived as outstanding in areas such as leadership and personal development, but also from a professional perspective. I looked at individual topics.

Today, there are great mentoring programs, also in the area of promoting women, where you can find support and exchange ideas. My parents were the main influence on me in this respect. My mother was a teacher and has always worked. And she was very clear that she wanted to do it and that it was right for the family. I think that if she hadn’t done that, it wouldn’t have been so easy for me to take it for granted that you can work and have children. It was always important to my father that ability and dedication counted – and not fine words. He was a natural scientist. I learned from him that if you put work into something, you will eventually get a result, and sometimes you have to be patient, but giving up is not an option.

Sharing ideas with friends also helped me. Being told by other women that it’s not my fault that everyone has to fight the same battle with children and a career. Luckily, I had friends who were similarly minded and I was late for nursery school with them.


Be honest: can you ever free yourself from a guilty conscience – even if it’s not always your own?

In the beginning, I often told myself that my children had to suffer because I was at home less than perhaps other mothers and was often really the last mother at nursery. But at some point I understood that they don’t do that at all. That it’s also good for my children when I work. Not because I’m out of the house then, but because I’m more balanced and don’t have to transfer my perfectionism onto the children in order to have achieved or created something. I have three boys and a girl, and I want them to be part of a new generation that doesn’t question any of this. I want the boys to learn that they have to do the laundry in the same way that my husband does the laundry. I want them to expect a woman to leave the house in the morning. And at the same time, I want to be exactly that mother for my daughter and make it clear to her: You should be the only limiting factor for your ambitions, not your environment.

The individual pieces of Intra follow different design ideas. The 'wrapped and impulsive' concept plays with the idea of cosmopolitanism and stands for change, openness and diversity. Photo: Ludwig Schoepfer/StudioTusch

Developing potential means being able to grow beyond yourself. What do companies need to do to support their employees in this?

In my opinion, companies should institutionalize the promotion of employees. Especially for SMEs, where there is a great need for everyone to think “outside the box” because there are no multiple structures, recognizing and using individual skills is so important.

In-house mentoring is a great way to do this, but is of course very time-consuming. This is why the direct line manager is often not at all suitable to take on this role. Appropriate support programs could facilitate the transfer of knowledge between experienced and less experienced employees. At the same time, this would ensure that talent is not overlooked and opportunities within the company are not missed.


Do you think that certain prejudices also prevent women from occupying “chairs” in management positions?

I have the impression that women are still considered to be more emotional and therefore more unstable. But if you change your perspective, it could simply be a high emotional perception. Which, by the way, I don’t want to deny any man across the board. I think this is a huge advantage for a company: it’s not about me telling you how I am, but about me also perceiving how you are. And maybe I’ll also notice more quickly if a team isn’t working and can find out why. By observing how people work together, asking the right questions and taking the time to evaluate it. It takes professional expertise to move a company forward, but it’s also proven that you need a high level of emotional intelligence to put people in the right place in a company and to take them with you.

Unfortunately, traditional management styles are often characterized by the fact that people have to function in a rigid system and that the system is rarely questioned, but rather the people. Where, at the end of the day, only performance and money count and, when in doubt, staff are replaced until the figures are right.

Bringing head and gut together is totally difficult for a certain type of leader. And these are often the very people who fall back into stereotypes again and again – and perhaps even consider themselves inclusive because they hire women “even though” they have children and want to work part-time.


What does this outdated thinking ultimately mean for companies?

Companies will no longer be able to afford this perspective in the future. I believe that many companies have been very lucky in recent years that this has not already blown up in their faces. We will also have a big problem as a society with the coming wave of baby boomer retirements if we don’t finally accept that women are as competent as their male equivalents and that children and careers are not categorically mutually exclusive. If companies continue to hire like this, at some point there will be no one left to hire because the clever and well-educated women will say: not under these conditions. Especially if your location is not Frankfurt or Hamburg. If there is no rethink here, the future of an entire company could be at risk.


But don’t employees with children bring valuable skills and abilities to the table?

You can now read so many positive things about the added value parents have as employees: when you have mothers and fathers in the company who are used to deciding things quickly. There are times when I personally feel like my head is bursting with all the issues I have to deal with at home and at work. But I also have the ability to decide what is most important right now. This automatic prioritization, because you always have to be clear about what is urgent and what can wait. For example, if I have to work fewer hours per week, then I don’t have the luxury of being able to take my time – the day doesn’t have 8 working hours, but 4 or 5. In my experience, colleagues who work fewer hours often have a very high level of efficiency. However, many don’t appreciate this because they tend to see the physical absence.

The successful team performance was made possible above all by the cooperative partnership between all those involved. Photo: Ludwig Schoepfer/StudioTusch
In addition to design decisions, the technical feasibility of the individual pieces was also carefully examined. Photo: Ludwig Schoepfer/StudioTusch

Against this background, what changes would you like to see in the world of work in order to improve equal opportunities between the sexes?

I believe that a focus on output is becoming important. Not to look at the time spent in the office, but at the contribution that is made. Then it doesn’t matter whether you’re a mother or father, or childless. Or whether you would like to have Fridays off. Because then all that matters is whether you are in the right position with your skills. But that requires a completely new mindset.

Unfortunately, presentation is often still more important than performance. And that’s something we women need to get better at: Do good things and talk about them. I find that difficult myself. I’m great at talking about how great my colleagues are and what a great team I get to work with every day. Because it’s easier for me to acknowledge this and be happy about it more honestly and quickly than about my own successes.

Men pat each other on the back, women don’t do that among themselves. When I observe women and men in my environment, it’s rarely the women who talk about their successes or verbally pat each other on the back. Understatement was always part of the culture in which I grew up, and I observe the same in many of my female colleagues. But you can work on that. My daughter is now six and says: I’m fine the way I am. And I would really like her to stay that way. But that’s also my job – and at the same time an appeal to the schools and educational institutions of this world – to promote this more. To encourage and demand individuality.


Progress has been made in many areas of gender equality in recent decades. What progress have you observed in your personal environment or in society?

I think it is important and right for the new generation of women to say quite clearly: we don’t want this and we demand that the patriarchal concept be replaced. They tirelessly remind us that women are still dramatically underrepresented on German supervisory boards. If we don’t push the issue of equality too far, we will never reach the new normal. Regardless of whether some consider this to be “hyperfeminist”. This is urgently needed for the transformation, because we need diversity to master complex challenges. And of course it is positive that the percentage of women on supervisory boards has risen. But sometimes my gut also tells me that we seem to need another 100 years until both genders are finally equal and everyone has accepted this. But I hope not, fortunately there are enough positive examples.

Stefanie Stanke is responsible for Wilkhahn's upholstery development department and is heavily involved in product development. Photo: Ludwig Schoepfer/StudioTusch
Fatma Bayrak has upholstered the seats and backrests of the Intra unique pieces by hand. Photo: Ludwig Schoepfer/StudioTusch

We have now talked a lot about professional, emotional and individual competence. How did this work in the project work during the implementation of PHOENIX’s intra-designs?

The nice thing about our work is that it can also be wonderfully creative. Even now, the PHOENIX design team communicated ideas, but we were quite free in the implementation. It’s important to know who can provide the right input with which skills at which point. We did this project together with our dual student Jil because I wanted her to be responsible for a project in which she could not only contribute but also design it herself. Using this example, you can simultaneously test the diversity of what you can change in a product and the diversity of communicative interfaces.

Jil worked together with Christoph, who was responsible for the technical implementation, i.e. topics such as how and where we source which materials, how this has to be technically implemented, who has to be informed how and when, because special productions in production run differently to normal price list products. The whole process therefore involved a combination of technical and emotional expertise for both of them. In addition, Stefanie played a decisive caster in the development upholstery department and Fatma in production. Stefanie contributed her expertise in the development of upholstery, while Fatma was heavily involved in production. It was important to know who could provide the right input at which point and with which skills. This meant getting everyone involved, discussing a lot, understanding it and taking it on board. The fact that the chairs are now here is a really great team achievement!


Last question: What advice would you give your younger self today?

Don’t be discouraged, don’t take everything personally, and counter!




More info

Conference chair Intra


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