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Reding in uphill fight over corporate gender quotas

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding was in last-minute negotiations on Monday (22 October) to rescue her plan to boost gender diversity on corporate boards, officials said a day before she is to unveil proposals that face withering opposition within the European Commission and from some member states.


In 2011, the EU commissioner for Justice and Fundamental Rights, Viviane Reding, launched a Women on the Board Pledge for Europe, calling on large companies to increase the women present at the board level to 30% by 2015 and to 40% by 2020.

Reding promised to consider legislative action if the self-regulatory initiative did not yield results by March 2012.

Reding has expressed frustration that voluntary schemes to put more women at the top of major companies have failed. The Commission vice president is to present a legal proposal in Strasbourg on Tuesday (23 October).

But it is an uphill fight. “She continues to work on building a coalition,” Mina Andreeva, the commissioner’s spokeswoman, said today, acknowledging that it is “a very ideological debate.”

Reding is believed to have only a minority of commissioners supporting efforts to set a 40% quota of women on non-executive corporate boards, which provide advice to senior managers. While there is support for the goal, there is intense opposition from pro-business colleagues in the Commission and member states to mandatory targets.

Commission officials have said privately that concern about imposing fresh mandates on businesses at a time when jobs and growth are and EU priority is likely to doom any binding proposals. “Everyone agrees that we need to achieve change and we need to have more board diversity, but [opponents think] it is not for the EU to do,” Andreeva told EurActiv.

But women’s groups, including the European Women’s Lobby, say whatever is likely to survive from Reding’s efforts will be too weak to have immediate impact to change today’s lopsided gender situation. Women comprise fewer than 15% of EU companies’ board members.

“There really is no reason for anyone to oppose it at this point because it is so weak,” said Leanda Barrington-Leach, spokeswoman for the European Women’s Lobby, noting that draft Commission proposals only applied to non-executive posts and set no EU-wide sanctions for companies that fail to comply.

Still, Barrington-Leach says there is strong support in the European Parliament and that a tougher gender quota “is still in the game.”

Opposition in Commission

Some of the strongest opposition within the 27-member EU executive has come from some of the nine female commissioners. Catherine Ashton, in charge of foreign policy, and Connie Hedegaard, the Climate Action boss, have opposed quotas.

Figures released by Reding’s office say 86.5% of board members and 97.5% of board chairs in the EU are men. In September 2010, the Commission adopted a Gender Equality Strategy aimed at boosting gender diversity in corporations.

Only France sets a 40% gender quota for corporate boards and sets fines for violators. Otherwise, policies vary across the EU, either through voluntary quotas or limited mandates. Denmark, Finland, Greece, Austria and Slovenia have adopted rules on gender balance for the boards of state-owned companies.

The EU estimates that it could take more than 40 years to reach a 60%-40% balance of men and women without some form of mandate.

“Personally, I am not a great fan of quotas. However, I like the results they bring,” Reding said earlier this year.

Barrington-Leach argues that “self-regulation doesn’t work,” and called for EU-wide guidelines. “The European Union has a treaty obligation to promote equality of women and men,” she said, “so the [EU] competence is already there.”

Next Steps

23 October: Viviane Reding to present proposal on boosting gender balance on corporate boards in Strasbourg.

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