European Commissioner Viviane Reding has launched a public consultation on how to redress the gender balance in the EU’s boardrooms. The consultation comes on the back of new figures published today which demonstrate that just one in seven board members in the EU’s publicly listed companies is female (13.7%). Although this is a slight improvement on 2010 figures (11.8%), if growth were to continue at this rate then the Commission asserts that gender equality would take another forty years.
There is speculation that the Commission will adopt legislative measure to close the gender gap, such as minimum quotas for the number of women in boardroom positions, particularly after just 24 companies signed up to Reding’s Women on the Board Pledge for Europe, a voluntary initiative proposed last year.
Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain have all introduced laws that require gender quotas for company boards, but France alone accounts for around half the increase over the past twelve months.
There’s no doubting that the lack of women working in Europe’s boardrooms in this day and age is disappointing. Companies know that they should be recruiting more women to the top roles, but have chosen not to. There is no quick fix for this situation, and legally enforceable quotas may or may not be the answer, but with companies unwilling to support voluntary initiatives it’s difficult for the Commission to know which way to turn.
Eurobarometer has also surveyed citizens’ views on women in decision-making positions, and found that the majority of Europeans agree that the business community is dominated by men who do not have sufficient confidence in women (76%). They also found that most Europeans believe that women have less freedom because of their family responsibilities (68%).
Critics of quota methods of recruitment argue that this could result in boardrooms with ‘trophy directors’, but the Commission says that ultimately, gender balance in boardroom roles will lead to better business performance and improved competitiveness. A study by McKinsey backs these claims, and found that gender-balanced companies have a 56% higher operating profit compared to male-only companies.
European women have campaigned hard for equal rights and have achieved so much in the past one hundred years, but challenges remain and there’s still further to go.