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“Women should focus on their strengths”

Ute Schaeffer

“You will never be perfect – this is the precondition of a work-life-balance. Second, you have to be very well organized and have a talent for improvisation. And third, women need to take themselves seriously and invest in their education.”

This is how Ute Schaeffer, DW’s Editor-in-Chief for Regionalized Content summarizes her success formula for managing her private and her professional life.

Schaeffer, born in 1968 and a mother of three, does not care for stereotypes about women or men. She laughs when she remembers how, after being appointed DW Editor-in- Chief in November 2011, male colleagues confronted her with their expectations about her style of leadership and management as a woman.

“I don’t take it too seriously as I myself don’t differentiate between a female form of management and a male form. I think I was selected because of my experience as a professional journalist working for DW for decades, also internationally, and it was due to my proficiency that I was chosen.”

Women should focus on their strengths, Schaeffer says.

“I think that girls often experience that they are part of a social system where they have to take responsibility for their families. I often feel that women have the capacity to look at situations from, let’s say, a bird’s perspective – they are able to get an overview of a situation quickly. I would also consider as a big strength that women take relationships – in business life, too – very seriously.”

A big weakness for women is networking – something that men do very intensively.

“Men have a very strong network (of contacts) and they maintain it. They see it in a very efficient and pragmatic way. They ask themselves, ‘What can I do for other people and what will I get out of it?'”

Sometimes, though, women tend to put others before themselves. Schaeffer finds the answers unfortunate that she gets when she asks women around the age of 35 where they see themselves in 5 years’ time. “Many of them answer … I see my family there and there, the education of my children, etc. But that doesn’t answer my question,” says Schaeffer.

Priya Esselborn interviews Ute Schaeffer

Schaeffer believes there should be more women in positions of leadership. But when it comes to the implementation of a quota system for women in German companies and institutions, she is divided. “After discussing the issue for the past 5 or 10 years, we still haven’t seen any results. But maybe it would be worth considering implementing a quota because the noncommittal agreement to hire more women alone has not lead to a situation where we have more women in high positions.”

Balancing work and family life

Recalling her own career path, Schaeffer talks about her studies and how she learned to balance work and family life at an early age.

“First, I always sustained myself. Even when I was studying I was never dependant on any money from my parents. I had my first child at the age of 21. At the time, I was in the middle of my studies and my husband too. We made a deal: We wanted to have the child, but we both wanted to have a degree in the end, too. So we both spent half a year each at home.” Schaeffer studied art history, history, romance philology and comparative literature in Trier and Bonn.

She joined DW’s central editorial department in 1995 and supported her family while her husband was still going through university. “My husband started working a bit later because he studied medicine, so he spent more time at university. So it was my salary that fed the family at first.”

Concerning the opportunity of become the Editor-in-Chief of DW – a position that offers huge responsibilities and little free time, Schaeffer admits that it was important for her to get the consent of her husband. “I told my husband he should know that he would be alone at home a lot and asked if that was ok with him. ‘You can say no and then we can make another decision together,’ I told him.”

Education is the key

Before assuming her new position, Ute Schaeffer was head of DW’s Africa / Middle East programs. She still enjoys travelling to Africa, a continent with which she feels a very strong connection. The 1000’s of stories from women she gathered during her travels there are inspiring. “The worst story was that of Mama Louise in Eastern Congo. She was some 45 or 50 years old and told me about the culture of violence in the civil war and after in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

And then there was Evelyn, a child soldier’s widow, whom Schaeffer met in a refugee camp in Gulu, Northern Uganda. “She was kidnapped by the rebels of the Lord`s Resistance Army when she was 14. She returned (home) when she was 20. She could not read or write and she was deeply traumatized. One of her children was killed and she had to look after two of her children plus two neighbor children, whose mother was being held as a slave for the rebels. That all put me in a mode of resignation as I could not see a perspective for this poor woman – nothing on which she could build a future. She will be completely dependant for the rest of her life.”

But it also gave her inspiration to hear the incredible stories of these strong women. It made her realize one should never take anything for granted. And it also confirmed her conviction that a solid education is the key to make it in the world, especially for women. “We really need to understand how lucky we are to have this opportunity.”

Author: Priya Esselborn
Editor: Sarah Berning


16.04.2012 | 14:52