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EU Mulls Gender Quotas to Crack Glass Ceiling

EU commissioner Viviane Reding addresses media on gender equality, Brussels, March 5, 2012.
EU commissioner Viviane Reding addresses media on gender equality, Brussels, March 5, 2012.
Rikard Jozwiak

Francoise Roels is the only woman among 12 board members at Cofinimmo. But that's about to change. The top brass of the leading listed real-estate investor in Belgium will soon have a completely different set-up.

Last year Belgium introduced gender quotas. All publicly listed companies have six years to ensure at least one-third of their board positions are held by women -- or face financial sanctions.

Roels was appointed before this came into effect -- picked for her qualifications and "not because of the fact that I wear or do not wear skirts," she says.

But she welcomes the prospect of having new female colleagues at the highest level. It will benefit everyone -- including men -- to shake up the way boards are selected, she says. "This professionalization of the process will also enable other types of men to come on the board."

According to Roels, in the past it was "often said that it was a kind of a practice that CEOs or board members asked fellow CEOs and fellow board members of their networks to join the boards, while if you will professionalize the way of collecting your board members you come up with different types of persons."

Growing Trend Across Europe

Proponents of quotas say they are needed to ensure greater gender equality. But they also argue that they make sense for companies, too, pointing to studies suggesting that companies with more women in top positions are more profitable.

But there's also strong opposition to mandatory quotas among most EU member states, which point out that unanimity is required to pass laws at EU-level in this policy field.

The trailblazer was non-EU member Norway, which in 2004 established quotas and sanctions such as the dissolution of a company if women held fewer than 40 percent of board positions.

France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain have also adopted similar gender quotas.

A recent poll by Eurobarometer suggests 75 percent favor legislation on gender balance in company boards. And in Germany, some 300 journalists recently called for media companies there to ensure women hold at least 30 percent of management positions.

Quotas From Brussels?

Now Brussels is contemplating EU-wide legislation. The EU commissioner for fundamental rights, Viviane Reding, wants women to hold 30 percent of board positions by 2015 -- rising to 40 percent by 2020. That's a tall order considering that currently only one in seven board members -- or 13.7 percent -- are women.

The slow pace has prompted Reding to canvass opinion among companies and citizens across the bloc, asking whether quotas are necessary and, if so, what sanctions firms should face.

Reding said this week that this consultation could result in legislation after the summer. "You know that for myself I made it always very clear," she says. "I am not fond of quotas but I very much like what quotas do, and maybe it is necessary to do what quotas do."

Critics note that both Sweden and Finland boast figures of over 25 percent female representation on company boards -- without the help of quotas.

...Or For Each Country to Decide?

Sweden's minister of equality, Nyamko Sabuni, wants more women on company boards but is a strong opponent of mandatory quotas. She says that this question must be solved in each member state, not through legislation from Brussels.

"I think that many of us think that this is a national issue. This was a thing that was brought up during the discussions. We have after all reached different levels in this area," Sabuni says.

"We must be allowed to find our own and different solutions. We can exchange experiences, we can learn from each other. But we cannot today start with common legislation when we are on such different levels."

Instead of quotas, Sabuni supports the idea of creating more time for women to make a career by promoting more affordable and accessible child care.

These thoughts are also echoed by Pedro Oliveira of BusinessEurope, which represents companies across the continent.

"It is true that the progress has not been so fast, so speedy," Oliveira says. "Nevertheless, we have to understand that this is not about filling up numbers. It is also about giving the possibility to women, though child-care policies etc., to create an environment where you gradually can allow women to be part of boards.

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