EU ministers in charge of employment and social affairs endorsed yesterday (7 March) a renewed pact for gender equality aimed at increasing women's presence in decision-making bodies, but refrained from imposing EU-wide quotas.
The Employment and Social Policy Council urged action at national level by 2020 to "promote the equal participation of women and men in decision-making at all levels and in all fields," according to the document adopted by ministers.
The renewed call comes as women around the world celebrate today (8 March) the hundredth International Women's Day.
The gender gap remains wide in Europe, however. Eurostat, the EU's statistical office, reckons that women in the EU are paid on average almost a fifth less than men to do the same job.
Women's unemployment is higher than men's. Women are also less present in top positions in the political and economic spheres alike.
Only three leaders of national governments in the EU are women – Angela Merkel (Germany), Mari Kiviniemi (Finland) and Iveta Radičová (Slovakia).
Less than a quarter of members of national parliaments in the EU are women, with percentages lower than 10% in countries like Malta or Hungary, which currently holds the Union's rotating presidency.
Women are also scarce in top private sector positions. Only 3% of corporate board leaders are women, according to European Commission figures.
To tackle this gap, the EU commissioner in charge of fundamental rights, Viviane Reding, proposed in July to introduce gender quotas at EU level to increase women's participation in decision-making bodies.
Her proposal was not endorsed by EU ministers. "We did not discuss this issue," admitted Italian Employment Minister Maurizio Sacconi at a conference after the Council meeting. The Pact for Gender Equality makes no mention of quotas either.
Nevertheless, many countries are moving ahead in this direction. Measures to increase the presence of women in boards of private companies or state-owned companies are already in place or are being undertaken in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Belgium and Austria, according to a Commission official.
In line with her assertive style, Commissioner Reding launched in March an initiative to urge EU companies to voluntarily increase the proportion of women on their boards. The ambitious objective is to increase women's presence on corporate boards to 30% by 2015 and to 40% by 2020, up from the current level of 12%.
"I want to give self-regulation a last chance. If this has happened by March 2012, I will congratulate the European business world. If it has not happened, you can count on my regulatory creativity," she said.