The gender imbalance in Europe’s board rooms has risen to the top of political agenda triggering a power struggle between the European Union’s most powerful institutions.
European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding wants to oblige publicly listed companies to have at least 40 percent of women on their non-executive boards by 2020, but industry lobbies and a number of national governments are seeking to scupper her proposals.
Meanwhile, the European Parliament has delayed the high-profile appointment of Luxembourg’s Yves Mersch to the male-only executive board of the European Central Bank, saying it was unacceptable that no women candidates were considered for the post.
“There is now not even a single woman sitting on the main board of what is one of the most powerful and essential institutions in the EU,” said Sharon Bowles, chairwoman of the European Parliament’s economic and monetary affairs committee.
“The symbolic and practical effects of this absence are not without note. It does seem, as with corporations, that there is a systemic cultural problem to address.”
Women hold just 14 percent of seats on the boards of Europe’s top companies, according to EU data. In individual EU nations the rate range from 27 percent in Finland to just 3 percent in Malta.
Reding put forward her plan to the European Commission last week, after recognising that her earlier call for companies to sign up to a voluntary pledge to increase female representation had failed. Only 24 companies signed up to the pledge.
“Self-regulation so far has not brought about satisfactory results,” Reding said recently. “I am not a great fan of quotas. However, I like the results they bring.”
European trade unionists have long argued that legally-binding measures are needed to bring more gender-equality into company management.
“We are very much in line with the Commission’s proposal,” said Claudia Menne, confederal secretary responsible for diversity and gender equality at the European Trade Union Confederation. “We support legislative proposals because we know that the private sector just pays lip service to non-binding measures.”
Several EU nations had already taking steps to introduce quotas of their own, including France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain. However officials in others including Britain, Germany and Malta have expressed opposition to Reding’s plan.
“It would be counterproductive for the EU to work towards developing legislative measures in terms of legally-binding quotas,” Maltese Justice Minister Chris Said told the MaltaToday news portal Monday. “Malta feels that this is fundamentally a cultural change and quick solutions may not necessarily produce the best results in the long run.”
Reding insists the “glass ceiling” that stops women rising to the top in business is harming back Europe’s economic performance.
“Mixed-gender business teams perform better than all-male companies,” she told a conference in Munich this summer.
“To say it bluntly: in today’s environment, a group of middle-aged, business suit wearing men will not make the cut.”The European Commission is expected to take a decision on Reding’s proposal before the end of this year – it would then need to be approved by a majority of governments from EU countries and the European Parliament before coming into force.
Her plan is expected to apply only to large, listed companies and cover supervisory boards rather than executive board members. State-owned companies will face more stringent rules, with a 2018 target to meet the 40-percent target, EU officials said.
In Norway, where quotas were introduced in 2005, women now make up 42 percent of board members.
A 2011 study by the Deloitte auditing company found around women made up around 12 percent of board members in leading companies in the United States, Australia and Canada; 8.5 percent in China, 7.8 percent in Malaysia and 4.7 percent in India.