Business summit underscores EU’s broader gender deficit

ECB board.jpg

This article is part of our special report European Business Summit.

Europe’s most influential business lobby will have its first female leader starting in July, but as BusinessEurope holds its annual summit over the next two days, men will dominate at the podium.


Men account for 87 of the 104 scheduled speakers at the European Business Summit in Brussels and the opening festivities Wednesday evening (15 May) will feature an all-male cast of VIPs – including Belgium’s crown prince, the country’s foreign minister and the director-general of the World Trade Organization.

Some 17 women – or 16% of speakers – are to address the summit. The event is held at a 19th-century museum housing a classic car exhibit, Autoworld.

The 16% share is in line with the number of women serving on corporate boards in the EU, a figure women’s advocates say shows that corporations are out of touch with society and need legislative pressure to diversity.

“They are really doing poorly, poor in the sense that they are not including women, that they are not aware of their blindness even though they should know better that women are as well qualified as [men],” Serap Altinisik, policy officer for the European Women’s Lobby, said when asked about the summit’s speakers’ line-up.

BusinessEurope has long called for greater female participation in executive posts and the economy in general, and last month appointed Emma Marcegaglia, who was the first female head of Italy’s Confindustria business group, to succeed Jürgen R. Thumann as president of the 41-member organisation.

Yet the business group has a record of opposing European Commission efforts to make boardrooms more gender balanced, including a move to require corporate boards to achieve a 60-40 gender mix by 2020.

In a position paper last year, BusinessEurope came out against a “one-size-fits-all quotas which disregard the highly diverse conditions in different sectors/companies and do not take into account the way corporate boards function and are renewed.”

Reding renews push for diversity

Commission Vice President Viviane Reding, who pressed for the gender quota as commissioner in charge of justice and fundamental rights, on Tuesday (14 May) resumed her drive to improve women’s representation in businesses.

“Gender equality at work is not a women’s issue, but a business and economic imperative,” she said in a meeting with the managing director of the Accenture consulting firm to discuss opportunities for women.

“Today, women still only represent 16% of board members in Europe, a shocking waste of talent when you think that 60% of university graduates are female,” she said.

Yet efforts to boost gender diversity through EU legislation have typically hit opposition, from businesses as well as national leaders.

Reding’s proposal was weakened to apply only to large, market-traded companies. Last week, an effort by the European Parliament’s economic and monetary affairs committee to pressure the financial services sector to promote women was watered down by amendments that replaced binding targets with voluntary measures.

The resolution must be voted on by the full Parliament before it can be sent to the Commission for legislative consideration.

The committee chairwoman, British MEP Sharon Bowles (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), said she was disappointed at the outcome, defending gender targets for an industry at the heart of some of Europe’s current economic woes.

“Whilst this is a problem everywhere, in the financial sector … you could say it’s almost more important because we think that the financial crisis was caused through imbalance,” Bowles said after the 8 May committee vote.

“Women have a different attitude to risk and that might have made behaviour slightly different if there had been more women around,” she told EURACTIV.

Corporations aren’t alone

But if corporate executive suites are more boys’ clubs than havens of diversity, the EU might take a look at its own gender ratios.

Consider the European Central Bank, where the 17-member governing council and six-member executive board are all men.

“The regulators themselves, you look at central banks, seem to totally fail to get women through to the higher positions,” said Bowles. “And that’s actually the root of the problem. The executive takes the senior people from the national central bank, and guess what? They’re men anyway.”

Another powerful finance institution – the group of ministers representing the 17 eurozone countries – has two women: Maria Fekter of Austria and Jutta Urpilainen of Finland.

Diversity is good business

A spokesman for BusinessEurope said Marcegaglia was not available for interviews before she takes over on 1 July. The organisers of the European Business Summit did not return requests for an interview on the speakers’ programme.

But Bowles – who was not invited as a speaker – said the business organisation appeared to be making an effort to get women on panels, while Altinisik of the European Women’s Lobby credited BusinessEurope for naming a woman to its top spot.

“I think it shows they can’t ignore all the facts and the evidence that diversity brings advantages to their own businesses,” Altinisik said, “and it shows there is a need to shift the policies.”

Women 20-64 years old continue to lag behind men in employment in the EU, according to new figures from the European Commission and Eurostat.

The number of women on the job grew from 55% in 1997 to nearly 62.4% in 2012, down from the peak of 62.8% in 2008. The employment rate for adult men fell from 75.3% in 1997 to 74.6% last year, down from 77.9% when the current economic and financial slump began in 2008.

But there still are big gaps between EU states. The employment rate for women is below 60% in Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Spain. But at least 70% of women work in Denmark, Finland and Sweden, Commission figures show.

  • 15-16 May: European Business Summit

Subscribe to our newsletters