MEP: Gender quotas should be introduced gradually

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Women have come a long way in the past 100 years, but private companies must recognise their responsibility to hire more women in leading positions, German MEP Angelika Niebler (European People's Party) told EURACTIV, expressing her support for the gradual introduction of quotas for women in boardrooms.

Angelika Niebler is a German MEP for the Christian Social Union (CSU). She joined the European Parliament in 1999 and is a member of the EU assembly's committee for women's rights and gender equality. She also sits on the Parliament's committee for industry, research and energy (ITRE).

She was speaking to Hanna Gieffers for EURACTIV.

One hundred years ago, women celebrated the first Women's Day on the initiative of German socialist politician Clara Zetkin. Among other things they claimed active and passive suffrage. Women's right to vote has become part of normal life in Europe, as is the possibility to be financially independent and, in many European countries, the right to abortion. Do we still need Women's Day today?

For me it is an important day, as it puts topics that matter to women high on the agenda. In the past 100 years much has been achieved, but there are some things that have not changed in 30 years.

It was already in the founding treaty of 1957 that a European basis was created for equal pay among women and men, but current figures speak a different language. The pay gap in Europe is on average 18%, in Germany it is even 23%. In spite of all the legislation and calls for change, little has changed. The ratio of women among CEOs is as low as 3%.

If Women's Day can raise awareness of such issues, this is a good thing.

How do you see the current situation of women in the world?

The past 100 years were an important period for women. What I find fascinating right now is the prominent role women are playing in the developments in North Africa. The century of women is not over yet.

What is your opinion on the EU's gender equality policy?

The EU has given determining impulses so that much has changed in the promotion of women and gender equality. However certain topics, like a work-family balance, can only be dealt with on a national basis. In my opinion the EU has led exemplary initiatives in recent decades, like the appointment of equal opportunities officers or on the transparency of equality in companies, public offices and ministries.

Without the EU we would be nowhere near where we are today.

Across Europe there is still a massive pay gap between men and women. How is this possible? What should the EU do about this?

The reasons behind the pay gap are multiple. Therefore there is no single solution. For a start, young women in particular ought to be encouraged to start their first job more confidently and demand higher salaries. Empirical studies show that women demand up to a third less than their male colleagues.

Another reason why women earn less than men is also, I believe, market segregation. Therefore, the pay for typically female jobs like health care ought to be raised. Simultaneously, women must be encouraged to take jobs where specialists are lacking, such as mathematics, informatics, natural sciences and technology. In my opinion, if the labour market were less segregated, the subject of the pay gap would soon be obsolete. Political solutions in this area would be the wrong way to go.

At a European level much is happening. In the European Parliament's committee for women's rights alone, we are currently working on eight reports that deal with gender equality. This does not only concern analyses and measures on women in executive positions but also improvements for women in rural areas, the different treatment they receive in health care or the fight against violence towards women.

In the European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding is also an active champion of women in the EU.

Together with Viviane Reding you issued a press release this week calling for the establishment of a pan-European female quota for private industry. Why?

I advocate a gradual introduction of a legal women quota in leading positions if the situation does not improve. In the past 10 to 15 years companies have only made little progress of their own accord. Companies ought to be given one last warning that they are themselves responsible for promoting women in executive positions.

But only when this warning is not heeded do I see the need to take a second step by finding a legal solution. Ms. Reding wants a legal solution from 2012. I think 2015 or 2016 is more realistic.

We should also keep an eye on the cycle of appointments within companies. But I see quotas more as a political solution than a general solution to the problem.

What do you think of the term 'token woman'?

Whether or not you see yourself as such is a matter of self-confidence. Women who have the quota to thank for an opportunity to show their skills bear no stigma for me. We should not forget either that there are already plenty of quotas in other areas.

In political parties, for instance, there are many unwritten quotas, say on the region or faith of a candidate, or their profession, whether they are a member of the middle class, an independent or a farmer.

How do you see the situation of women within your own party?

At the last party conference in October 2010 the CSU introduced a legal quota of 40% for district executives and Länder executives. This is a clear political signal to the district executives and to women, to encourage them to take responsibility within the party.

Processes can change only if women themselves take action. Only one or two women in positions of responsibility do not constitute the critical mass to make changes.

Women's Day is closely related to feminism. What does feminism mean for you in the year 2011?

I have great respect for the feminists of the first and second generation. Much of what they fought for 30 years ago has now become natural thanks to them. But today we are living in a different world with different preconditions.

I always thought it was problematic that women wanted to fight for their rights alone. I think that that is not the way to solve problems of equality. We should create a mentality where men are also prepared to take responsibility within the family. Feminism in the year 2011 means for me to live in an equal relationship. The compatibility of family and career should not be a subject for women alone.

35% of MEPs are women. How do you see the compatibility of family and career here?

I have no problem with it. But one precondition for that is that your partner is prepared to take over tasks at home and that child care is assured. The solidarity among female MEPs is great. I got a lot of support when I was pregnant with my second child during my term as an MEP.

What ought to change by the 200th anniversary of Women’s Day?   

I would like us not only to talk about equality but to have it.

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