The EU needs to take gender equality seriously

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A 2011 Eurobarometer survey found that 88% of Europeans consider that women should be equally represented in company leadership positions. Let’s hope that the directly-elected members of the European Parliament and member states are listening, says Gabriele Suder.

Dr Gabriele Suder is professor of European and International Business and Jean Monnet Chair at Skema Business School.

"The proposal for a directive on improving the gender balance among non-executive directors of companies listed on stock exchanges is partial and incomplete.

Commissioner Viviane Reding’s initial proposal has been watered down, and in addition now excludes the majority of European companies, i.e., those of micro-, small and medium-size that represent 99% of European companies. It will only impact the 5,000 publicly traded companies – and only their non-executive directors.

But for executive boards, the situation is worse: they reveal a gender disequilibrium with 91.1% of positions held by men (vs. 85% for non-executive directors).

For sanctions, instead of imposing fines, the withdrawal of state subsidies or even excluding companies from public contracts has been replaced by “administrative fines” or “nullity or annulment declared by a judicial body of the appointment or of the election of non-executive directors made contrary to the national provision”.

It is time for the EU to take these issues seriously. Women currently represent only 13.5% of corporate board members in Europe, in the best case.  But the directive is far from having been adopted: In the same European Parliament that will vote on the directive, women only represent 34% of members and thus voters.

The other, final approver of the directive is the Council, composed of member states’ governmental authorities. Given that the gender imbalance is particularly dramatic in certain newer EU member states, they are likely to oppose the directive.

In addition, even if it is adopted by EU decision-makers, let’s hope that this directive does not follow the same fate of shareholder rights deadlined for 2009: the commission had to refer twelve member states to the European Court of Justice for late or incomplete implementation.

Possibly even worse, member states might turn the directive into a non-binding recommendation, which has been tried before, unsuccessfully.

At the end of the day, it is the European economy and social climate that suffers most from inequalities.

The Commission stated that a 2011 Eurobarometer survey found that 88% of Europeans consider that women should be equally represented in company leadership positions. Let’s hope that the directly-elected members of the European Parliament and member states are listening."

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