The European Parliament backed on Wednesday (20 November) the European Commission's proposal to increase the number of women in Europe's company boardrooms, which in 2013 stood at only 17.6% for non-executive boards.
After four different committees approved the proposed law to improve gender balance on company boards, the European Parliament has voted with an overwhelming majority (459 in favour, 148 against and 81 abstentions) to break the so-called glass ceiling, and allow more women in top management level.
Recent figures confirm that the share of women on boards across the EU has been on the rise for the past three years and has now reached 16.6%, up from 15.8% in October 2012, but the upward movement remains marginal and still very slow.
The proposed directive introduces an objective of at least 40% female non-executive board members in large listed companies operating across all sectors by 2020. But the objective is more flexible for executive directors.
"Companies do not hire men or women, they hire talent. However, in the process, companies often neglect to value women's skills. Therefore, I very much welcome the adopted resolution, guaranteeing greater transparency, enhanced meritocracy and equal opportunities for women and men", noted centre-right MEP Rodi Kratsa-Tsagaropoulou, who was one of the co-rapporteur of the Parliament's position.
"It is essential for listed companies to evolve so as to include highly-skilled women in the decision-making process, in accordance with our core principles and values of equality, but also in view of achieving economic growth and a competitive internal market," she added.
The vote comes just days after German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives agreed with the Social Democrats (SPD) to introduce national legislation requiring German companies to allot 30% of their non-executive board seats to women from 2016.
Germany introduced voluntary targets for women in top management positions in 2001, but little changed. In 2011 blue-chip companies agreed to try to boost women on boards, again through voluntary targets. The centre-left SPD had pushed for 40% women on boards from 2021.
Merkel has long opposed such quotas, which are popular elsewhere in Europe. In April, the German chancellor persuaded members of her political party the Christian Democratic Union to defeat a measure in Parliament which would have mandated that 20% of public companies’ supervisory boards be comprised of women by 2018. The proportion would have risen to 40% by 2023.
"Today the Parliament has made the first cracks in the glass ceiling that continues to bar female talent from the top jobs," the EU's justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, said after the vote. "The Council of Ministers, the EU's second Chamber, should now rise to the challenge and make swift progress on this draft law, which places qualification and merit centre stage," she added.
Ministers are next due to discuss the draft law at their meeting on 9-10 December 2013.