EU & Gender Equality; Markets 1 - Women 0

The World


Recent studies show that the EU is far from achieving gender equality.  First, despite the fact there are more women than ever in the workforce the positions they occupy are largely around the low and middle ranks of companies.  While the high level positions they occupy are the ones most likely to face criticism and a gentle push towards the exit; creating the appropriately titled “glass cliff”.  In addition, when it comes to boards and executive boards in particular studies show undeniable evidence that they are dominated my men.  To add insult to injury women are still on average paid less than men for the same jobs.

Second, this is reflected in EU institutions as well. Professor Kassim leading a team of academics has brought to attention that the EU Commission's workforce distribution is in line with the broader EU picture. 

In light of this disturbing information Vivianne Redding, now head of DG Justice, has set gender equality on top of her agenda.  Initial aims were to pass a legislative proposal that would set quotas for both executive and non-executive boards across the EU.  This would see women behind at least 40% of their seats.  Results of open consultations and discussions have diluted the original proposal to the point where it is debateable whether it will have any real impact.

Business interests largely opposed the initial proposal arguing on the grounds of competitiveness that boards should have the “best” possible candidates.  The quota could potentially harm the competitiveness of EU businesses and as a result of the entire of Europe.  This would place the Union further away from the Lisbon goals of obtaining the most competitive market in the world.  In troubling times as these this could be detrimental.  More disturbingly perhaps, Member States such the UK and Spain have also put up barriers against the initial proposal.

The end result is the current Directive proposal which aims for a 40% quota for “non-executive” boards.  Please note; this will apply only to publicly listed companies.  This proposal will not break the “glass ceiling” but is likely to further encourage the “glass cliff”.  First, with women occupying mostly middle and low level positions this proposal will have a small impact.  In continuation of the status quo women will be hired in middle range boards and with no other pre-requisites from the proposal; they will be placed in positions that face more criticism than others and are more likely to be fired.  Continuing the cycle of the “glass cliff”; the most obvious effect of which will be to discourage attempts to climb the job ladder.

Second, it does not provide incentives/ reason for companies to put women in executive positions, thus encouraging the continuation of men dominating company boards at the top.  This will make the glass ceiling even thicker as men from non-executive boards will be absorbed into executive boards, in order to release positions to maintain the quota.  Thus reducing potential seats for women in executive boards.

Furthermore, with the implementation left to member states it is debateable which ones will actually practice the quota.  Countries like Sweden or Denmark are leading in this field.  But countries such as Greece, the UK or Spain are far from it, with no policy tools or relevant experience to back up the Directive results may be disappointing.  Nordic countries offer a good example here: bearing in mind social costs can be more important than potential "competitiveness loss".  Not to mention that the assumption that there are no women to cover positions in executive boards is a rather absurd one anyhow. 

Markets Over Equality

This indicates a larger problem within the EU, the tendency of over-focusing on markets and neglecting socio-political issues. It is fair to wish to advance the EU economy however, there must be at least considerations for its impact upon society.  Bearing in mind that economic crises impact women harder than any other social group, this seems to be yet another hit.  National governments and elected representatives are to blame here for allowing business interests and unreal economic development concerns twist their arms into this.  It’s better than nothing some may argue but “good enough” policies are not enough especially now.

The EU should take example from Scandinavian countries and include social costs into its equations with higher weights. Though the EU is trying to change the situation within its institutions it is not enough to try and set an example (even if the goals are achieved).  As social inequality increases across the board this legislative proposal had the chance of making the first steps into setting something very bent, gender equality, straight.  It has failed to do so and should be a lesson for future EU policies both for the public but also its representatives. Unti then women in Europe (and elsewhere) will have to keep up the fight.


PICTURE: women of influence

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