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Women on boards debate heats up

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Viviane Reding, Justice Commissioner, European Parliament

Prominent panel to debate the introduction of quotas for women on company boards

Few issues divide women quite as much as those raised by mandated gender quotas on boards. So when Viviane Reding, vice-president and commissioner responsible for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship at the European Commission, proposed a 40% quota by 2020, it’s little surprise that the reaction was swift and severe.

The debate will get an airing on 19 October, when a panel organised by the European Parliament Information Office in the UK and the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations will discuss whether the European Union (EU) should legislate on quotas for women on the boards of public companies.

The Information Office explains that some countries, both inside and outside the EU, have already gone down this route in an effort to improve women’s representation at the top in business.

But is this the best approach and should it be adopted across Europe?

The debate is timely as it is just days ahead of the announcement of a long awaited European Commission’s proposal which might kick-start legislation in this area.

On the panel, chaired by Financial Times management editor Andrew Hill, will be Mary Honeyball (MEP London, Labour), Anthea McIntyre (West Midlands, Conservative), Helena Morrissey, CEO Newton Investment and founder of the 30% Club as well as Petter Sørlien, Mission of Norway to the European Union.

The players, the reports

Garnering support during a speech in Munich in July, Viviane Reding laid out the statistics supporting mandates and said: “I am aware that many companies and policy-makers are opposed to mandatory quotas. Well, I do not like them either. But I like the results they bring.”

The sentiment is shared by organisations such as UN Women, as outlined by John Hendra, the Assistant Secretary General for the UN’s gender entity, at a meeting attended by WVoN members in July 2011. But when WVoN co-editor Polly Trenow questioned UK MP Andrew Mitchell, then secretary of state for international development and now the current Conservative chief whip embroiled in the “Gategate pleb” scandal, whether the British government agreed with the sentiment and would follow suit, the response was decidedly fumbling.

In early 2011, the Lord Davies report resulted in a list of recommendations in order to foster gender diversity on boards, among them that quotas should be imposed if publicly listed companies failed to increase representation of women on boards to 25% by 2015.

The UK government said in September this year that the proportion of female representation in FTSE100 companies went from 12.5% to 17.3% and is using the implied momentum to back up its campaign against the EU proposal.

Led by the UK, nine countries, including the Netherlands, Malta, and six central and eastern European countries, sent a strongly worded letter to the Commission’s president, José Manuel Barroso, and Viviane Reding in an effort to dissuade the EU from going ahead with the proposal altogether. The joint effort may force Brussels to drop the legislation, according to an article in the Financial Times.

But there are powerful supportive voices in the UK as well. Notably, Royal Mail chief Moya Green, who cites her experience with Canada Post as a successful example of quotas working.

Get informed and involved

Mary Honeyball will be appearing as a panellist at the event next Friday in her capacity as Labour’s European spokesperson on women and gender equalities. Aside from this, she is also a feminist and notes that her aim is to explain why quotas for women are so imperative and why EU legislation hasn’t been designed to dictate to businesses but to help them make better, informed choices.

“The draft legislation is an essential step towards creating greater parity between men and women in the board room. I hope that the event will inform those who are hesitant about the EU adopting the legislation, but also encourage debate.

“It’s important we aren’t afraid to discuss the subject because sharing ideas helps us to better understand the problems women still face today within the workplace.

“Despite having better legislation to protect women at work there is still a significant gap in women achieving positions of authority, and we must address this, and legislation is the only sensible route.

“I also want to address the issue that the EU is dictating to business leaders or forcing them to appoint token women. I hope the legislation, when in place, will help to achieve better gender equality- after all women and men achieve equally as well in their early careers, so why shouldn’t this be the case as they move up the career ladder?” she said.

Still, many women remain conflicted by the notion that they will be perceived as token board members. Helena Morrissey, who has had nine children while rising through the ranks of the fund management industry is a firm believer that quotas are unnecessary.

“Our belief is that, as more women join boards without the imposition of quotas, the more they can demonstrate the value they can add.

“By the time we get to 30%, the system will be self-perpetuating,” she said.

The reality is that no matter what side women might be on, now is the time to pay attention and participate in the process.

An agreed proposal is expected near the end of October after which it will be handed over to a rapporteur as it makes its way to a vote in the European Parliament. Women and the organisations that represent them may not want to miss the opportunity to influence policy that could affect them so profoundly.

For starters, we hope you can join WVoN at the event at 10:30am to noon on 19 October Europe House, 32 Smith Square, London SW1P 3EU
RSVP: Agnieszka.PIELA@ext.ec.europa.eu, or participate in the liveblogging event on our website and by using #EUQuotas hashtag on twitter.

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