This Friday will be International Women’s Day! So, to mark the date, all this week Debating Europe will be publishing a themed series of posts looking at the issue of gender equality in Europe. The EU prides itself on having equality between women and men as one of it founding values (though its inclusion in the 1957 Treaty of Rome was probably initially more about economic necessity than idealism). But how much do the EU’s values match up with the reality?
We’re starting things today with a look at a controversial piece of legislation proposed by the European Commission last November, which (if implemented into law) would establish gender quotas in European boardrooms, leaving companies at risk of sanctions if they fail to achieve the threshold of 40 percent female board members.
Last week, German industry groups were the latest to speak out against the proposed law, which they believe would hurt business. We have also had some strong criticism of gender quotas from our readers, including from Catherine, who argued that:
Anyone who is worth their salt rises up through the ranks naturally: Margaret Thatcher, Christine Legarde, Aung San Suu Kyi. No, what you are trying to [achieve is people] being offered roles because of their body difference… Political correctness is an insult to all those women who stand on their own.
Before we start looking at gender quotas in detail, it might be good to take a quick peek at the current status of women in business and politics in Europe. Of course, there is a great deal of variety across Europe, but currently only 3.2% of the Presidents or Chairs of the largest publically-listed companies in the EU are women. Similarly, only 13.7% of the board members of these companies are women.
Thing aren’t much better in politics, where only 23.2% of sitting parliamentarians in Europe are women. The European Parliament itself manages a slightly improved figure, with 35% of MEPs being women (with Finland having the most women MEPs and Malta having the fewest), though this still pales in comparison to the Nordic countries, where 42% of all parliamentarians are women.
Scandinavian countries pioneered many of the gender quotas being considered at both European and national level today, so we decided this was a good place to start with our interviews. We began by speaking to Arni Hole, who is the Director General of the Departement of Family Affairs and Equality in Norway. Norway was the first country in the world to adopt binding quotas for the boards of publicly listed firms. As a consequence, women now make up more than 40% of board members Norwegian companies. So, what would Arni Hole think of Catherine’s criticism of gender quotas?
It’s not an issue of women being on boards because they are women. It’s about them being on boards because they are competent individuals.
In the past, it was simply a case of structural discrimination. What we saw, after a lot of research was done, was that many competent women (and many competent young men) were not even being put on the election lists to be nominated for elections to boards. So, in fact, it’s a question of having a gender balance when they set up election lists for boards, and looking for competent individuals from both genders from the very start of the process.
In Norway, the proportion of women on company boards has leapt from only 15% to 40%. However, according to a report by the European Women’s Lobby, the number of female CEOs and Chairpeople has not increased: 95% of boards in Norway are chaired by men, and only 2% of CEOs are women. Should Norway perhaps go even further, then, and try to legislate to increase the number of women CEOs and board chairs?
Senior positions are a completely different matter. You cannot use regulations to decide those. According to Norway’s business laws, it is up to the board members to find and recruit the company CEO… True, it’s a little strange, when you have had gender balance in boardrooms for some years, that you do not have more women CEOs employed by those boards. That’s interesting, but there’s nothing we can do about that. I think this will take some time, and I think that cultures have to change.
Next, we spoke to Mikael Gustafsson MEP, Chair of the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality in the European Parliament, and asked him a bit about the prospects for an EU-wide boardroom gender quota. Does he think the proposals are likely to be successfully passed into law?
The Commission has put forward its proposal and the European Parliament shall say what we think; and the Parliament thinks this is a good method to go ahead. I want to make it very clear, however, that there are many measures to be considered when we talk about gender equality in Europe, and company boards are not the whole world.
The Parliament really wants the Commission’s proposals to become a legislative proposal, but I can’t say what the outcome will be in the Council.
It’s important to note that the Commission’s quota proposal still has a long way to go before it has a chance of becoming law. Mr Gustafsson was not explicit, but there is every possibility that it will meet serious resistance in the Council of the European Union (where national ministers will get a chance to vote on it).
Next, we spoke to some women’s organisations to see what they thought of gender quotas. First up, we spoke to Elina Saaristo-Diatta, Coordinator at the Coalition of Finnish Women’s Associations (NYTKIS). How would she respond to Catherine’s criticism of gender quotas as an “insult to all those women who stand on their own”?
And, finally, we spoke to Jana Smiggels Kavková, Chair of the Czech Women’s Lobby and Director of Fórum 50%, an NGO working to improve the representation of women in public life. We also asked her to respond to Catherine’s comment:
What do YOU think? Are gender quotas necessary to prevent structural discrimination in board rooms? Or do they merely assign people positions because of their body differences? Are they insulting to competent women who can achieve things on their own? Or should other European countries learn from the successful use of quotas in Scandinavian countries? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.
IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – Elephant Gun Studios
Note: On Wednesday, Friends of Europe will be holding an event in Brussels looking at “Why women hold the key to sustainable development”