EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has kicked off a three-month debate that could result in more decisive legislative action, a year after she called on companies to take voluntary steps to increase the number of women on boards to 30% by 2015 and 40% by 2020.
Despite expectations that Reding was going to propose legislative action this month, the Commissioner preferred to postpone the decision until after a public consultation.
The Commission published a report yesterday (5 March) showing that limited progress towards increasing the number of women on company boards has been achieved one year after Reding called for credible self-regulatory measures.
Just 13.7% of board members at Europe's top firms are women, up from 11.8% in 2010. However, it would still take more than 40 years to reach a significant gender balance (at least 40% of both sexes) at this rate.
“The lack of women in top jobs in the business world harms Europe's competitiveness and hampers economic growth,” said the Commissioner, adding that despite her calls, self-regulation had not brought satisfactory results.
Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain have started to address the situation by adopting legislation that introduces gender quotas for company boards. Some other countries – Denmark, Finland, Greece, Austria and Slovenia – have adopted rules on gender balance for the boards of state-owned companies.
But that is not enough, Reding said. “Personally, I am not a great fan of quotas. However, I like the results they bring.”
“I believe it is high time that Europe breaks the glass ceiling that continues to bar female talent from getting to the top in Europe's listed companies. I will work closely with the European Parliament and all member states to bring about change,” she added.
The Commission's Legislative Work Programme for 2012 includes an initiative to address this situation. But before going ahead on proposing legislative action, the Commission has launched a debate with the public, hoping to have the backing for stronger legislative measures that go beyond the recommendation set in the 2012 work programme.
The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development said that there was no conclusive evidence that a company's performance was improved by having more women on the board.
But "it is increasingly recognised that greater gender diversity in firms would increase the talent pool for top executives," it said.
The OECD released yesterday a study showing the wage gap between men and women is wider in Germany than in any other European country and women occupy just 4% of top corporate jobs. Germany may be run by a woman – Chancellor Angela Merkel – but it is still lagging on gender issues, despite promises to change its ways.
Full-time employed women earn 21.6% less on average than their male counterparts in Germany, a pay gap that is well above the OECD average of 16%. In Norway and Belgium, two countries that have adopted gender quotas on company boards, women receive 8.4% and 8.9% less, respectively, showing that binding legislation has also an impact on bridging the pay gap.