"Equality in decision-making is not yet a fact," EU Fundamental Rights Commissioner Viviane Reding told a hearing of the European Parliament's women's rights and gender equality committee yesterday (14 July).
"I do not rule out the possibility of putting forward legislation in this area," she added.
People close to the commissioner told EurActiv that the most likely action could be aimed at the private sector, with the introduction of gender quotas for boards of directors of top European firms.
Currently, only 11% of such positions are held by women in top European companies, according to the European Commission.
Reding considers the introduction of binding quotas as a last resort should companies prove incapable of voluntarily adapting their gender balance. There have been suggestions that an initial quota of 20% or more could be applied, but the Commission insists it has no precise figure in mind at the moment.
In addition, no such moves are foreseen in the short term. "The commissioner will monitor companies' behaviour until the end of 2011 before taking action," an official close to the commissioner told EurActiv.
In Spain, Zapatero's government passed a law in 2007 obliging public companies and listed firms with more than 250 employees to apply a minimum 40% quota for each gender in the composition of their boards.
Although the rule is only expected to become compulsory from 2015, it has already had an impact. Female representation on Spanish companies' boards doubled from 5% in 2006 to 10% in 2009.
In Germany, the justice ministers of the Länder recently agreed to introduce gender quotas to boost female representation in the decision-making bodies of private companies.
Federal Minister for Justice Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger (Liberal Party; FDP) insisted, however, on the application of a voluntary company code to tackle gender imbalances.
The legal conundrum
To reach the goal of a more balanced job market in the entire EU, Commissioner Reding could use a new instrument introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, which provides for "incentive measures" to be applied in the field of anti-discrimination (Article 19 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU).
The Commission's legal experts are still working on identifying the legislative instrument which is best suited for incentive measures – a directive which requires national transposition or a regulation which would be immediately applicable across all 27 EU member states.
The EU executive is not even ruling out intervening in the public sector at national level as a means of guaranteeing real gender equality among civil servants, although the EU's powers are less clear-cut in this area. "A recommendation is not to be ruled out," an official close to the dossier told EurActiv.
A recommendation is a non-binding legislative instrument which has proved to be very effective in the telecommunications sector, pushing member states to apply significant changes.
Age discrimination of women
As the commissioner unveiled her strategy to fight gender imbalances in Europe, the European Parliament's committee on women's rights and gender equality approved a report pointing to another form of discrimination affecting women across the EU – that of age.
"Ageing women are subject to multiple forms of discrimination," said the MEP in charge of the report, Sirpa Pietikäinen (European People's Party, EPP; Finland), underlining that age discrimination is more frequently directed at women than men.
In the working environment, "discrimination based on age is more often directed at women than men and it is visible, for example, for women who are over 50 years old, with difficulties in ascending in their careers and in their re-employment," reads a statement issued by the EPP.
The MEP also highlighted sexual discrimination in hospitals, which becomes more significant as populations age. "Many diseases are diagnosed and cared for in the same manner for men and women, although, for example, women's symptoms in case of heart attacks are different. For this reason, women die more often in hospital, owing to the lack of adequate treatment," Pietikäinen said.