Germany's 30 largest listed companies have set themselves goals for putting more women in senior positions – although only four have explicitly pledged to hit the 30 per cent target eyed by the government for 2018.
After fierce debate about their poor showing in global comparisons, the companies have agreed to report on progress every year in the hope of warding off binding regulation.
With only seven of 189 executive board seats filled by women, ministers in Chancellor Angela Merkel's government have been pressing blue-chip companies to find ways of breaking the so-called glass ceiling.
Ursula von der Leyen, labour minister, called the big companies' record to date "simply abysmal" and forecast that the government would eventually be forced to impose a legal quota.
But for the moment her campaign for legislation has been parried by some of her cabinet colleagues, with Kristina Schröder, family minister, leading the charge to give the voluntary "Flexi-quotas" a chance.
In a catalogue of goals presented to key ministers, and seen by the FT, the groups in the Dax index promised to raise the share of women in senior positions in Germany – structural factors allowing.
Sporting-goods maker adidas – which has no female executive board member even though one in two employees is female – said women in senior roles would rise from 26 to 32-35 per cent by 2015. It defines senior roles as the 15 per cent most senior posts in Germany.
Financial groups Allianz and Commerzbank, and telecoms group Deutsche Telekom – the only member of the quartet with women on its executive board – pledged to reach 30 per cent that year.
Carmakers BMW and Daimler and industrial companies such as Siemens posted more modest top-line goals, reflecting the fact that women account for only 10 -15 per cent of their work forces.
BMW, which has no female executive directors even though investor Susanne Klatten is a big shareholder, said it expected to double the share of women in senior positions to 15-17 per cent by 2020.
Daimler said it would grow from 12 per cent to 20 per cent in 2020; while potash maker K+S aimed to have the same share of women in senior posts as on the payroll – some 10 per cent today.
Although women are well represented in German politics right up to the position of chancellor, German companies have failed to keep up with the drive to give women a fairer share of corporate power.
According to a 2010 study of gender diversity in executive boards in 11 major economies by McKinsey, the consultancy, Germany ranked last, alongside India, and well behind best in class Norway.
Companies have tried to raise female representation at board level in response to public pressure – Siemens, BASF, Eon, Daimler, Henkel and Telekom all now have women on their executive boards.
But there is still resistance in corporate Germany to binding quotas. Dieter Zetsche, head of Daimler, said last month: "What shall I do with the men that are replaced? Send them all into retirement?"