The EU needs more women in economic decision-making positions. So says the European Commission, whose public consultation on doing away with the glass ceiling on company boards ends on Monday 28 May. Leading the charge is Viviane Reding, Commissioner for Justice and Fundamental Rights, who last year called on businesses to increase voluntarily the number of women on boards to 30% by 2015 and 40% by 2020. Now, having seen limited progress, she is considering legislative action, arguing that the financial crisis could have been avoided “if there had been more Lehman sisters instead of brothers.”
Few would object publicly to gender equality, and many must have cringed at the - at best – clumsy comments by Deutsche Bank’s Josef Ackermann that women would make board meetings “prettier and more colourful”. But still, Reding will need to overcome powerful arguments against such a quota system.
Some will contest the mantra that women are better business leaders, allegedly devoid of the testosterone and “alpha traits” that brought about the crisis. Level-headed economists will challenge the hopeful view that quotas can help to deliver growth. Many diversity advocates, including Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier and Germany’s Family Minister Kristina Schröder, prefer “flexiquotas” whereby every company decides its quota voluntarily. And then there are those who worry about “tokenism” giving rise to resentment. Instead, they advocate measures to bolster the number of women in the pool of talent from which top positions are filled, and keep them there. These include better education and childcare facilities.
The strongest pushback against EU-wide gender quotas is likely to be made on the basis that the Commission lacks the legal powers to propose such a measure, and that it would make more sense to deal with the matter at national level, in line with the subsidiarity principle.
A number of Member States already have some sort of gender quota (France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium for boards of listed companies; Denmark, Finland, Greece, Austria and Slovenia for state-owned companies), but may actually oppose EU legislation that differs from their national regulation. The UK’s David Cameron may have stated that if insufficient progress is made, “having strong measures will not be taboo anymore” – but when push comes to shove he is unlikely to favour quotas imposed by Brussels. Even Angela Merkel (the female leader of our times!) opposes EU legislation in this area.
Reding’s team is busy studying what legal basis would best allow them to claim EU competence. But what suits her agenda best is obvious. An internal market directive would allow her to get the proposals adopted with a qualified majority vote in the Council. However, those who are not persuaded by quotas are likely to argue such measures would need to take the form of anti-discrimination legislation, which requires unanimous agreement of all Member States. Getting 27 national governments on board seems an impossible task.
So the odds appear to be stacked against the Commissioner. And yet, when it comes to promoting gender equality, Brussels can cause an upset or two.
There is one notable precedent.
Some years ago the Council gave its unanimous backing to a highly controversial proposal to prevent insurers from using gender as a pricing factor. To many at the time, in particular those such as the Financial Times who put their faith in cool and hard-headed analysis, it had seemed an irrational plan. But it made it into law.
Reding is aware that she will face considerable opposition from her own colleagues, Member States and industry. In fact, the only real support seems to come from the European Parliament, where MEPs would like to see gender balance apply to public institutions like the ECB too.
Weighing up all the obstacles, Reding may settle for non-binding recommendations – and a large media splash. Then again, she has a strong track record when it comes to driving through bold new rules and sticking to her guns, for example with the very popular (or populist) initiative to cut mobile roaming charges, and her public attacks on Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010 over his policy on Roma migrants in France.
Some say that the veteran Commissioner is positioning herself for the EU executive’s top job in 2014. It would be unusual for the role of President to be given to somebody who is not a former prime minister – but she may be able to break the mould and indeed her own glass ceiling. The political hunger and media instincts are certainly there, and Reding understands very well that such quotas are not just about economic or legal merit, but also the appeal to the average citizen.
In the meantime, what about the Commission’s own gender policy? Comparing the EU executive to a listed company is like comparing apples and oranges, but it is still interesting to look at the figures. On the face of it, the Commission is exemplary, with 52% of female officials.
However, on closer inspection, the female contingent is particularly strong among the younger officials and lower grade jobs, whereas at the higher ranks of the bureaucracy only 4 of the Commission’s 33 departments are led by women. Given that meritocracy is not really embedded in the European Commission’s DNA, and that the bureaucracy is not always as accommodating to working mothers as one might imagine, it will take some years for today’s young female officials to make their way through the required seniority steps.
The College of Commissioners is a different matter, since it is the political face of the institution and more exposed to public scrutiny. The 2010-2014 Commission (also known as “Barroso II”) is the most “female” Commission in history, with 9 women in the College of 27 (unless you count Secretary General Catherine Day as the 28th Commissioner, which many do!). But does anybody really believe that the current Commission proves that placing more women at the top is a guarantee for better management, leadership or vision?