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Berlin’s top chicks: Powerfrauen

These seven women are among the very few who made it to the top within Berlin’s male-dominated halls of power.

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Clockwise from top left: Sigrid Nikutta (photo by Sigrid Malmgren), Catherine von Fürstenberg-Dussmann, Alexandra Hildebrandt, Ines Pohl, Dagmar Reim, Gesine Lötzsch, Renate Künast

These seven women are among the very few who made it to the top within Berlin’s male-dominated halls of power.


Sigrid Evelyn Nikutta took over the BVG, Berlin’s main public transportation company, on October 1 last year. She beat 176 other candidates for the job, including 21 women, and now reportedly earns nearly €400,000 a year, twice as much as mayor Klaus Wowereit. You might think it’s slightly unfair that you get more for running the U-Bahn than you do for running the whole city, but then the BVG, which employs 12,000 people, is considered a tough corporation to run. Her predecessor Andreas Sturmowski, whose contract was not extended after financial irregularities, left the company with debts of €778 million and losses of €65 million. During her three-year contract, Nikutta has the dual task of reducing the debt while increasing the number of passengers from over 900 million to a billion per year.

The 41-year-old was born in Poland and studied organizational psychology at the University of Bielefeld. She later studied philosophy in Munich and her PhD dissertation was aptly titled “Management at 60 – executive or has-been? A qualitative study of self-evaluation in leaders in top management.” She went back to her Polish roots when she took over a department of Deutsche Bahn in Poland. She also has three kids and a husband who, she says, gave up his career in computers to look after them. Behind every successful woman there is a man! -Ben Knight


At the top of Dussmann, one of Berlin’s biggest companies, is a peppy, petite blonde who wears pink and enjoys the company of her two cats. Her exuberance and friendly Midwest-accented German (she was born in Missouri) feel more appropriate for a long chat about the latest Hollywood gossip than for hard-hitting business talk. Yet Catherine von Fürstenberg-Dussmann presides over a company with a turnover of €1.5 billion.

Born a von Fürstenberg, Catherine was predestined for a life of privilege and studied to become an actress in Denver and London. She gave up acting to be the “mirror and sounding board” of her husband, Peter Dussmann, whose empire is built on facility management, office services and senior care operations that employ 54,000 employees worldwide.

After Dussmann suffered a severe stroke just before his 70th birthday, von Fürstenberg-Dussmann joined the Supervisory Board. Soon, she took over, annoyed, among other reasons, that “the former Chairman lit up his stinky cigar in a smoke-free boardroom!” While the buzz was that she might sell her husband’s company, she instead moved into the office on the seventh floor of Dussmann KulturKaufhaus, filled it with enthusiasm and employed her female intuition and acting skills to preside over the company’s fortune and people. “Never try to be a man” is her advice for a woman in charge.

Juggling her job responsibilities with a wish to be next to her ailing husband, she spends half a week in their house in southern France and the other half in Berlin. Aware of the struggles women encounter trying to “compartmentalise” work and family, her next step is to open up a chain of “KulturKindergartens” with extra-long opening hours next to large employers. The first one is scheduled to open at a Berlin-Marzahn hospital in May. She believes such services will greatly facilitate women’s rise to leadership positions more than any government imposed quotas. Her unorthodox approach and American spirit have shaken up the stiff German business elite. And if you happen to be looking for that English-language book past regular businesshours, the all-new English bookshop in the Dussmann KulturKaufhaus is your only bet. If it’s late enough (just before midnight), you might stumble upon a sparkly little blonde browsing the shelves. Talk to her: Mrs. Dussmann is always happy to have a chat in her native tongue. -Dana Kikic

ALEXANDRA HILDEBRANDT, director of the Mauermuseum at Checkpoint Charlie

Museums in Berlin might be a gentlemen’s club, but the city’s second most visited is run by a woman: Alexandra Hildebrandt runs the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, a museum filled with memorabilia and artefacts linked to the Berlin Wall and the divided city, with a special focus on escape attempts. Hildebrandt is the widow of the museum’s founder, Rainer Hildebrandt, a historian, human-rights activist and avid escapee supporter. After his death in 2004, Alexandra, his third wife and companion for the last 14 years of his life, took charge of his legacy. She established herself as an agent provocateur when she single-mindedly decided to erect a memorial of 1065 wooden crosses to commemorate the victims of the Wall on an empty lot next to Checkpoint Charlie. After a long dispute with the Berlin authorities, the memorial, deemed “tasteless,” was demolished in 2005. The dispute earned Hildebrandt, now 52, the nickname “crusader” and the top spot in a city magazine’s infamous list of the most embarrassing Berliners. Since then, she has established the Dr. Rainer Hildebrandt Medal for Non-Violent Commitment to Human Rights and has further committed herself to developing the museum and its collection. -Dana Kikic

RENATE KÜNAST, floor leader of Die Grüne, Berlin mayoral candidate

Renate Künast is that Frau with the 1980s pop star haircut who wants to be the next mayor of Berlin. And she stands a good chance. Even if she’s trailing in the polls at the moment, Künast is still Berlin’s most popular female politician. If she were to win, she would be both the first Green and the first woman in the position. She’s one of the few Green party politicians with proper government experience – she took over the Federal Agriculture Ministry under Gerhard Schröder in 2001, and turned it into Germany’s consumer protection headquarters. Thanks to her, the current minister Ilse Aigner spends most of her time writing angry letters to Facebook. And though she was born in a small town in West Germany, the 55-year-old Künast does have Berlin credentials, having been an MP in the Berlin parliament for 14 years. Having introduced a quota in 1986, Die Grüne are today the most feminist of the major parties: more than half of their MPs are women. In a recent Bild interview she proudly proclaimed herself a “quota woman,” hoping to defy the stigma. -Ben Knight

GESINE LÖTZSCH, leader of Die Linke

The boss of the controversial Die Linke, Gesine Lötzsch is not a communist. Like any leader of the successors to the GDR’s ruling party, that’s something the 59-year-old likes to make sure you understand. But she is a pure, real Berliner. Born in Lichtenberg in 1961, she is now a directly elected parliamentarian for her native patch of former East Berlin – where she won 47.5 percent of the vote in 2009. Her local appeal is the key to her success. In the dark days of the Left, between 2002 and 2005, she and another Berlin woman, Petra Pau, were the only two Bundestag MPs the party could muster. Her popularity in the rest of Germany is not quite as all-conquering, especially since an article she wrote in January entitled “Paths to Communism.” Universal outrage followed, which was a bit ironic, as Lötzsch is often seen as the softer side of the Left party leadership, much less confrontational than her Porsche-driving comrade Klaus Ernst, the party’s other leader, and the rampant Sahra Wagenknecht. But that‘s her style: her friendship with predecessor Oskar Lafontaine definitely helped her get the job. She is married with two children. -Ben Knight

DAGMAR REIM, director of rbb

She was the first woman elected to head a public broadcaster in Germany, the colossal Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg (rbb). In 2003, rbb arose from the merger of West Berlin’s Cold War relic Sender Freies Berlin (Radio Free Berlin) and Brandenburg’s ORB. As the new institution’s director from the start, Dagmar Reim, now 59, was charged with the restructuring and future planning of the public broadcaster, fusing eastern and western institutions. Today, rbb transmits its programmes over eight radio stations (from the youth station Fritz to high-brow KulturRadio) and six television channels. Reim came under heavy criticism for closing Radio Multikulti in 2008 as part of her tough cost-cutting measures. -Dana Kikic

INES POHL, editor-in-chief of taz

Pohl is among those very few women who – fashion mags and Exberliner excepted – rule over the editorial of a Berlin publication. The 43-year-old is the only leading female in the ultra macho kingdom of daily German newspapers. She took over taz (die tageszeitung) editorship in April 2009, the fifth woman to do so at the left-wing paper, where a 50-50 gender balance is enforced. Since then, her agenda has been to restore the popular, cooperative-run daily’s original tone: leftist, provocative and brave – and controversies have ensued. One of them involved installing a plastic relief of a naked, very well-endowed Kai Diekmann, editor-in-chief of tabloid Bild, on the facade of the taz building – following a taz column about his alleged penis enlargement. Pohl publically disapproved (“How much penis do we have to have?”), but the ‘artwork’ lifted spirits inside and outside of taz. -Dana Kikic