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Still not sure if Reding is serious about Quotas for Women on Company boards – what do Member States think?

Zita Gurmai

On Company boards, the need for quotas for Women is clear and women only constitute 13.7% of board members at Europe's top firms. Can the same be said about the European Commission’s commitment to addressing the situation? Commissioner Reding, Vice President of the European Commission and Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, has been talking about presenting a directive’s proposal to increase the representation of women on boardrooms of companies. But what we need to know is whether it amounts to more than just talk.

I told Commissioner Reding in a face to face meeting in Strasbourg on 11 September that aspirations are not enough. We need concrete targets to be met (40% of women on boards) and concrete consequences if those targets are missed. The crisis must not be an excuse for not increasing the number of women in decision-making positions.

Unfortunately, political opposition has started early. Nine countries have already expressed their opposition to this project in a common letter sent to Commissioner Reding even before the publication of the draft directive. This is a very uncommon way of proceeding.

As I said in a previous blog, the Norwegian example showed us that self-regulation does not work. Only clear and strong sanctions going hand in hand with additional measures will have a positive effect. PES Women has been pushing for the implementation of binding legislation at European level for more than one year now.

Beyond the economic argument, male leaders have to understand that having an equal representation of women and men is also an issue of democracy, equality and justice. Male quotas de facto exist in boardrooms since men represent almost 90% of the board members. Yet no one questions the merit and capability of these men. This is the definition of institutionalized imbalance. So, quotas are the only way for women to be in equal competition with their male counterparts, who benefit from historical and from traditional advantages. Quotas are not a barrier to meritocracy, they will guarantee it.

These nine countries, which have had this knee-jerk reaction, are all led by Conservative Governments. They have chosen to ignore several academic studies that show the economic benefits of having more women on boards of the companies. More women not only brings fresh perspectives, new ideas, opinions, and ways of thinking to business, but we also note better financial results than in companies having no women on their boards. Therefore, when Europe’s priority is to fight the economic crisis, how can they refuse to take the economic case for gender equality into consideration?

I reminded the Hungarian Minister of these arguments in an open letter I sent to him last week urging Hungary, my home country, to support the proposal. In addition, I co-signed with Hannes Swoboda and some other S&D MEPs a letter addressed to President Barroso to request a real open debate on the directive, as a Eurobarometer survey shows that 75% of European citizens are in favour of quotas for women on boards.

Now, it is Commissioner Reding’s responsibility to follow through by actively building support across the EU institutions and among Member States representatives. Europe has a duty to achieve an equal representation of women and men in economic decision-making and Council members should support the Commission’s proposal. It is time for the Commissioner to back up her words with action. If she is not willing, I can assure you that I, and the PES are ready to take up the fight!

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