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An Interview with Marie-Kristin Illigen

Strengthening women in leading positions: We are all required!

Our alumna Marie-Kristin Illigen is executive position & female leadership coach and has studied business administration at the WiSo faculty of the University of Cologne (Class of 2007). Furthermore she is an expert in design thinking, customer experience management and organisational development.
On Tuesday, 23 June 2020, she will attend to our round table series "Strong like a woman!" and will talk about career, further development and equal opportunities.
In our alumni interview we talked about Gender Equality at work and about "Female Empowerment". Marie-Kristin also gave valuable tips for our students!


Dear Marie-Kristin, women are often worse off professionally than men. What does "Female Empowerment" mean to you personally?

For me, this is mainly about strengthening women in a professional context. Women lead and act different than men do - not better, not worse - simply different. Over the past decades, many women have worked for equal rights in order to make it possible for women today to vote, study and work as a matter of course. Nevertheless, in many places you still notice that there is an imbalance between the sexes. In this respect, as a Female Leadership Coach, I have set myself the goal of supporting and encouraging female managers on their way.

In particular, it is about remaining true to oneself and not trying to imitate male behavior, only to be able to survive in a mostly still male-dominated work environment.

To keep it plain: To be aware of female otherness and to understand it as a strength and to remain authentically oneself as a woman.

Both the time with and for the children as well the responsibility for the financing of the family should be assumed by both parents.

It is still an issue today that women earn less with the same qualifications and the same work. Why is that so? What do you think must happen so that the "gender pay gap" is no longer an issue?

An absolutely unpleasant topic, but in my opinion it has many facets and is not so easy to resolve. Bringing family (children & household) and career under one hat is still shouldered by women in most cases. With the result that today women still tend to work part-time and thus accept general loss of income and have a weaker negotiating position in salary negotiations.

This is an area where society needs to change its way of thinking and acting:

Both the time with and for the children as well as the responsibility for the financing of the family should be assumed by both parents. This would lead to a redistribution: Fathers would have more time than before for their family and less main load with regard to the income situation; mothers could do more for their income and their own old-age provision (keyword old-age income poverty among mothers).

Apart from this, the "stigma of motherhood" would also be dissolved:

Then it would no longer be only the "part-time mothers" who are not available for appointments in the office in the afternoon or who have to go home because of sick children. Then it is today the mother and tomorrow the father who takes responsibility at home and from today's "different" [note: because not always available in the office (M-K I.)] the new "normal" emerges.

If this rethinking works, we as a society can win everyone over! (Keyword lack of professionals, old-age income poverty and many more).

Nobody asks a man who has children how he wants to combine job and family or questions his leadership qualities.

In your opinion, what should be done to increase the proportion of women in management positions?

The main point is that the coordination of family, household and children is no longer the exclusive responsibility of women. As a society, we must get away from putting women with children in a negative category. Nobody asks a man who has children how he wants to combine job and family or questions his leadership qualities. Unfortunately, the birth of a child makes this different for women. As soon as children are involved, it often seems to be forgotten what has been achieved so far. Suddenly, sentences like "You can't do the job part-time" or "Part-time executive manager - that's not possible" are heard. We have to change that!

Only if both parents conclude flexible working time models, home office arrangements or joint part-time agreements with their employers and thus assume responsibility for the family and its financing, can equality be achieved. Some companies have already understood that a rethink is necessary in regards to the lack of female executive managers and are doing everything to reconcile family and job for women AND men.

So this is a matter for everyone in our society:

  • Women, who ask their partners to allow family time as well, in order to share the responsibility for the compatibility of family and job
  • Men who seize the opportunity to spend more time with their children and share the responsibility for securing the family income
  • Companies that change their base attitude and offer flexible working time models and home office arrangements; so that women (and also men) can work part-time as executive managers


I believe that you gain strength if you remain true to yourself and stand by "being a woman".

When is a woman a "strong woman"?

To be honest, this is not so easy to answer, because it always depends on the individual perspective and the individual priorities and goals of the "woman". I believe that you gain strength if you remain true to yourself and stand by "being a woman". Far too often I still experience in a professional context that women try to survive in a male-dominated group by acting like men.

By recognizing and appreciating and using "otherness" even in such "male-only club", in my opinion, one's own strength as a woman comes into play.

Women lead and act differently than men - not better, not worse - simply differently.

What are the most important contents or insights from your studies for your current profession?

When I look back on my studies today, I would say that there are two topics that have shaped me most in my professional life:

1. independence / motivation

In the rarest of cases you get something for free: Everything you achieve is achieved with commitment, motivation and passion and of course always with a bit of luck. Studying at the University of Cologne has encouraged me to organize, structure and discipline myself. This kind of independence is something that companies appreciate very much and certainly expect - especially with increasing management responsibility.

2. networking

The requirements for a study in Cologne and for successfully entering a job are multiple and complex. The studies have shown me that you can perhaps somehow make it as a lone fighter. With a network of friends and like-minded people, it is not only easier because you can share and exchange information, but it is also much more fun. In addition, sharing expands your own horizons, because each participant in the network has a different perspective and approach. Being in a network and working together on challenges is an absolutely essential and in my opinion very enriching thing.


The studies at the University of Cologne encouraged me to organize, structure and discipline myself.

What would you like to give our students in general? And what are your three tips for our students?

1. be authentic and use your strengths

It is much easier and also more convincing if you are authentic and not pretending or playing a role. In addition, it is always good to know where one's strengths are and to use them as much as possible or to take on tasks that correspond to one's natural skills. Because if you act in an area that corresponds to your natural strengths, it will be comparatively easy for you. If you are authentic at the same time, this is a very promising combination!

2. build up a network and use and benefit from each other

Use the power of the community and keep in mind that it is not only in the Cologne networking circle (Kölschen Klüngel) that many issues are assigned within the networks. The background to this is that personal networks contain people you know and trust. It is much easier to find someone suitable or to get help from the network than to look for it on the free market.

3. be happy

Find a job that fulfills you and makes you happy. You'll spend a lot of your life working. If it doesn't make you happy, change it. Life is too short to spend too much time with something that does not satisfy you. Apart from that, studies have shown that happy people are more successful and live longer.


Thank you very much for the interview Marie-Kristin!

Interview by Ayla Wisselinck