Claudia Oeking is a business woman through and through. She has also established herself on her career path in the more male-dominated world of the tobacco company. In an interview, he tells how it happened.
The transition through working life can be difficult – and even today, unfortunately, it often seems to be more of a challenge for women than for men. According to the Federal Statistical Office, in 2021, 29% of German management levels will be women. It is only 20th in the EU ranking of Member States, so there is still room for improvement. After all, gender-balanced companies are even more successful economically and more attractive as employers. After all, more variety is not a bad economic choice to keep your products and services diverse and exciting. This is what we discussed with Claudia Oeking.
BRIGITA: Ms. Oeking, you were the only woman on the floor of Philip Morris International’s management for a long time. Tell us how did it happen?
Claudia Oeking: First of all: my wonderful colleague Karolina Vozgirdaite, responsible for the brand’s strategic communication, is currently on the board. This shows that we are doing our homework and I hope that in other companies more and more women are involved in making decisions. When I look back, it was often different. At the nuclear power plant at the energy supplier EnBW, I was the first female manager. When I joined Philip Morris nine years ago, the leadership was even less diverse.
Was it difficult to get into this position and how does it feel to work in it?
When I joined the management board in Germany in 2019, I was welcomed with open arms: The team is glad to bring a different perspective and focus. As much as I am grateful for the different views on our challenges that my colleagues bring to the table, in addition to their particular knowledge of the various forms of diversity. For example, because they have different ethnic and social origins or sexual orientation, belong to different generations and family constellations, or their lives are shaped by special events or decisions. The key is to allow ourselves to think differently – and then work together to find the best solutions from different perspectives.
What tips would you give women to start a career?
I never had a career plan. My number one goal has always been to have fun at work. Through various professional positions, it became clear to me that this goes hand in hand with entrepreneurial and managerial responsibility. In this respect, my most important tip for a satisfying working life is to consistently follow my own interests and strengths; do what you like. The confidence, courage and resilience that are needed to go through the difficult stages that exist in every position also naturally build upon this. After all, I am convinced that a really good start can only be achieved in a team: no trusting exchanges with bosses and co-workers, no space and protection that you give employees and everything you learn from them, and without this network outside your own function and company , you can neither develop professionally nor personally.
Are there also women’s empowerment programs you support or other ways you are trying to empower more women?
The promotion of women is very important to me. From a pragmatic point of view: 50 percent of the population, and often also of customer groups, are women. Therefore, women should be represented in companies at all levels of the hierarchy. That’s why we support a career network, for example nuhu, Through which Melly Schütze strives to achieve greater women’s visibility and parity at all levels of the hierarchy in the economy. We also support Global Digital Women (GDW) led by Tijen Onaran, who uses her knowledge to accelerate gender equality and increase the percentage of women in management positions in companies. These are just a few examples of our commitment to women’s empowerment. We are also partners in the Vicky Wagner BeyondGender Agenda initiative, which fights for equal opportunities for people with disabilities, of different generations, cultural and social origins, sexual orientation and gender identity. In my work as a member of the BeyondGenderAgenda advisory board, I learn a lot about the importance of diversity to economic success and what companies should do so that all colleagues can grow to their best results.
Overall, the tobacco industry appears to be more male dominated, but maybe it’s a cliche. What was it like when you started establishing a foothold in the tobacco industry and have structures changed since then?
I would not limit it to the tobacco industry, I would see it that way for the boards of major sectors of the economy. A lot has happened in our company and in many sectors in recent years. However, there is still a way to ensure diversity and a level playing field in business, especially in Germany, and thus innovation and long-term economic success – both in corporations and in family businesses and start-ups. I myself have always been able to count on my bosses and colleagues, I have received a lot of support and I am very grateful for that. But because it is more difficult for others – be it on purpose on a case-by-case basis or unknowingly – we need to highlight the differences in development opportunities, injustices and barriers. We must ensure that the culture in the company is inclusive, that diversity is celebrated and that employees are individually encouraged. Managers need to create an environment where everyone has the same opportunity to contribute their own skills, ideas and perspectives and develop further. Diversity alone is not enough. Diversity only works hand in hand with integration.
Nowadays, not only do you value conventional cigarette products, IQOS is now also an alternative to smokers. To what extent is this innovation important to you?
Since 2016, we have been conducting a radical course – which I personally support with full conviction. We want to replace cigarettes with low-carbon alternatives. Non-incineration products are approximately 95 percent less harmful, as confirmed by independent scientific studies. For all smokers who will not quit, for best efforts, low-carbon products such as heated tobacco products and e-cigarettes offer the opportunity to switch to a less harmful alternative to cigarettes. We focus all our strength and resources on research, development and delivery of these alternatives with fewer harmful substances, driving change in our industry through innovation. And educating smokers. Because only those who know the relationships and effects of smoking can draw appropriate conclusions for their own actions. We have created the information service was-raucher-wissen-sollten.de which provides factual information. Our goal is to ensure that no one smokes as quickly as possible. I am proud that transformation is not just a slogan for us, but that we consistently implement change.
They also operate on international markets and are responsible for communication with the public. As an expert for the company, have you always been directly valued or did you sometimes have the feeling that you first had to prove to your clients as a woman?
My interlocutors are politicians and representatives of ministries and regulatory and supervisory bodies, journalists, consumers and environmentalists as well as social and political activists, scientists, cultural workers and business representatives – in my opinion very interesting people. I treat myself with respect, openness and curiosity, I wait for questions and criticism and hope for dialogue on an equal basis. And as a rule it resounds from the forest when it resounds in it. Surely there was someone who put me in a drawer first. But I don’t let this discourage me and use it as an opportunity: after all, the element of surprise is on my side.
The gender pay gap is still a widely discussed issue in Germany. Have you experienced this personally in your career and what advice would you give women when it comes to wage bargaining?
For me, it is completely incomprehensible and unacceptable that people receive different pay for the same job on the basis of gender. It is obvious that everyone deserves the same pay. In numbers, however, unfortunately too often this is not always the case. That is why I am particularly proud that, for the third year in a row, we are the only large company in Germany to receive the EQUAL WAGE Foundation certificate. I hope many companies will follow us in the years to come. Otherwise, injustice must be dealt with. It is important that there are public forums and protected spaces for such topics inside and outside the company. So far, for example, it has been a network for us Women at the PMGwhich has just merged into our “No Labels” group where colleagues from different dimensions of diversity in our home meet. And for coaching before a payroll interview, an exchange with a mentor works great. If you don’t already have one: Having such a sparring partner in your own organization or from another company is highly recommended. Just approach potential candidates!
More about Claudia Oeking
Claudia Oeking has been with the Philip Morris tobacco company since 2013. During this time, she started in various management positions in the communications industry, both in Germany and Austria. As the Director of External Affairs, he is responsible for dialogue with the public since 2019 and is responsible for the external presentation of the company. This also includes corporate communication and public relations. He is also responsible for the area of sustainable development.
Sources used: RKW Center for Rationalization and Innovation of the German Economy V., Federal Statistical Office