STUTTGART, Germany—It’s a gray Sunday afternoon and Regine Stachelhaus is at the Stuttgart airport, a place that she knows well after years of work travel, including commuting to Düsseldorf for her most recent job from her home in a nearby Southwestern German village. Instead of a business suit, Stachelhaus is dressed casually in jeans and a sky-blue sweater set that matches her eye shadow. She rushes into the noisy Panorama restaurant above the main departures desk and apologizes profusely for being an hour late—her husband had an emergency and she had to drop him off at the hospital.
Stachelhaus, 58, settles into a table, orders a coffee and explains that she didn’t leave her career when her first son was born 27 years ago. She didn’t slow down her 12-hour days after she and her husband adopted their second son—then a 16-year-old refugee from Eritrea—five years ago. She doesn’t regret missing her first son’s first steps or being on an international work trip during his first day of kindergarten. While she climbed the corporate ranks, her rock musician husband stayed at home with the kids.
The intense focus on her career paid off. Stachelhaus became a rare paragon of female achievement in Germany, a country whose record of women in the workplace makes America’s hand-wringing over the issue seem unwarranted. By 2010 she became only the third woman to break into the top management circle of a DAX 30 company (the top 30 German biggest companies listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange) when she took a job as Chief Human Resources Officer at E.ON, the world’s largest investor-owned electric utility. In the U.S., women make up 15.7 percent of Fortune 500 company boards, according to a Deloitte study, compared with 8.2 percent of a sample of 600 listed companies in Germany.
Now Stachelhaus is leaving the boardroom behind. She announced in May that she wouldn’t renew her contract at E.ON so that she could care for her husband, who was diagnosed with a severe lung disease.
Churn is often high in top executive positions. Average CEO tenure in the U.S. fell to eight years in 2012 from 10 years in 2010 according to a May report from the U.S. Conference Board. Given the thin ranks of women in upper management on both sides of the Atlantic, however, the personal decisions of female top executives tend to raise eyebrows. Whether it is Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer cutting her maternity leave short or Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter leaving her U.S. State department job, women in high places often endure heavy scrutiny for their personal choices.
In Germany, where not a single women heads a major company, Stachelhaus’ decision to leave has put her in the center of the working-women debate. Advocates of women in the workplace here saw her decision as a setback for German female executives, but it also gave ammunition to those who say that women are not rising to the challenge of taking leadership in the business world.
One leading German business magazine contended that Stachelhaus actually left her high profile position because it was too overwhelming for her and not because of her husband’s illness.
“Of course I thought about the signal it would send,” Stachelhaus told another German magazine. “But I can’t think about that now. I know what’s important in my life, and my priorities are clear.”
Stachelhaus’s life and career have always been out of the ordinary in traditional German society. She met her husband, Willie, at the age of 17 at a youth camp. He studied music and she studied law. When they had their first son, her husband agreed to take care of him so he could have the freedom to pursue an artistic career without the pressure of earning a salary. Everyone from his barber to his doctor told Willie that he was making a mistake—he shouldn’t be so reliant on his wife.
Though she admits she felt doubtful at times throughout her three-decade career, Stachelhaus ignored the critics because she knew she wanted to have a high-profile job. She first rose through the ranks at technology company Hewlett Packard’s German operations, then did an 18-month stint at UNICEF, followed by three years at E.ON. Her husband would often bring her son by the office during her long days.
Even with the challenges of juggling both a demanding career and two sons, she said that she would have been unhappier staying at home, and would have regretted not having children even more. Much like the viewpoint espoused by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, Stachelhaus wants to see more mothers in Germany continue to work after they have kids and not giving up when things get hard.
“I counsel many women who decide against kids that they are making a mistake,” she said. “They should have the courage to do both.” The issue, she continues, “is that many women cut back their work hours or quit if their kids start to have problems. Every kid has problems and somehow women always think it’s them.”
Stachelhaus insists that stepping away from a top management job now does not contradict her Lean-In-esque philosophy. Though she spends most of her day caring for her husband, she still serves as a consultant to E.ON and recently joined the supervisory board of U.K. technology firm Computacenter.
Instead, she believes her decision highlights a very different dilemma—the tension that comes with caring for aging parents and spouses. It’s an issue that both men and women at the prime of their careers will face as the workforce ages and demand for caregivers grows.
In that debate, Stachelhaus hopes she is sending a positive message to anyone facing the hard choice that comes with balancing family and work.
“I am trying to be a good example for men,” Stachelhaus says. “If their wives get sick they should do the same.”