Fair representation for women on company boards

2012, Women's Rights

Here is an article I wrote for Shifting Grounds blog on 27 November 2012.

As a member of the European Parliament’s Gender Equality and Women’s Rights Committee I have worked for a number of years to increase women’s participation in decision-making. 

Gender equality is a core value of the EU, from the bloc’s founding treaty in 1957 which included the principle of equal pay for equal work, to the Charter of Fundamental Rights which recognises the right to equality between women and men in all areas, and the need for positive action.

The latest proposal to promote women’s participation in economic decision-making is a proposal from the European Commission about women on boards. It comes after years of the Commission encouraging Member States to take action, with mixed results. Currently oonly 14% of company board positions in the largest listed companies in the EU are held by women, compared to 16% in the UK.  The Commission’s proposal, which will apply only to companies with a turnover in excess of 50 million euros a year, is that the proportion should be at least 40% by 2020. Member States that take measures “of equivalent efficacy” for more balanced boards would be exempt from the new rules. Sanction for non-compliance will be the responsibility of member states.

Having more women on boards is a basic question of fairness.  Women make up half the population and 60% of graduates.  More than 70% of purchasing decisions are made by women.  Yet too often non-executive directors are recruited through an “old boys’ network” from among business and personal contacts of current board members.  The European Commission proposal sets out to have these male-dominated opaque recruitment practices replaced by transparent selection procedures and objective qualification criteria.  This is what is required to smash the glass ceiling.  Qualification and merit will still be the key criteria for a job on the board – and there are over 7,000 highly qualified women with professional experience ready to take over a board position[1]

The aim of the EU legislation is to speed up the varying rate of progress in Member States.  Across the EU women’s representation on corporate boards has increased by just 0.6% per year since 2003. However in France which introduced binding quota legislation in 2010 the number of women on boards has doubled to 22.3%.   In the UK self-regulatory measures have put us on course to reach 27% by 2015, and 37% by 2020[2], more than likely putting the UK in the category excluded by Brussels from the new provisions.

[1] European Business Schools Women on Board Initiative
[2] Cranfield School of Management Female FTSE Report

Some of the challenges faced by top women

Labour Party

The Financial Times earlier in the week produced a fascinating and informative “slideshow” of top women professors in financial education.

When asked; “What is the biggest challenge you have faced as a woman working in finance?” the female professors’ replies included the following:

  • Performing at the highest level as finance academic means that sacrifices in other areas of life must be made. Missing out on important birthdays, holidays and school events is not uncommon and I often feel guilty
  • The biggest challenge has been international mobility. I saw with my male colleagues that their spouses happily accompanied them, but my husband is not keen on quitting his job and starting from scratch abroad
  • My biggest challenge has not been in the field of finance itself but rather the difficulties in balancing work and family
  • You must prove quickly – and often with greater quality – that in addition to bringing your gender you bring knowledge and experience
  • The single biggest challenge I faced was establishing credibility with senior colleagues as a long term practitioner in the field
  • The biggest challenge as a women in finance is the small representation of women in general in the industry

These are telling comments and, I fear, representative of women at the top of their field in most careers.

In addition, the women in the FT feature speak for most of those in similar high-powered positions across Europe. Life for those who break through the glass ceiling is rarely easy and women face many challenges which are completely foreign to men.

Although women have by and large achieved acceptance at the higher levels of the public and private sectors, it is clear that this is by no means a given. Women still have to prove themselves more than their male counterparts, and also still do the majority of the caring for children and elderly dependants.

This is, I believe, changing, at least in northern Europe. Some countries, notably those in Scandinavia, are well ahead. However, we all need to work to improve the position of women, both at work and at home. In particular, the work-life balance needs special attention. This is the big challenge for those of us who legislate on these issues.

Women would be worse off without the EU

Labour Party

There is a growing consenses that there should be more women in leadership positions. It is vital that the people who are making the decisions in economic, social, political and public life are representative of society itself.

I was pleased thefore to be invited to talk a group of women on Wednesday who were visiting Brussels as part of the “Strategic Leadership Programme for Women”. The programme was created with the aim of increasing the number of women leaders in decision-making roles in the North West of Ireland/Northern Ireland.

I was invited to speak by an inspirational woman called Bronagh Hinds, co-founder of DemocraShe. Funnily enough, I found out that Bronagh’s early career mirrors my own to some extent. She was Chair of the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action and Chief Executive of Gingerbread Northern Ireland.

Initiatives like the Strategic Leadership Programme enable women to develop confidence, knowledge, skills and leadership capacity; networks with their peers and to make contact with women who have already succeeded as leaders.

Women continue to face barriers at every stage of their careers that their male counterparts do not have to deal with in the same way. You just have to look at the low levels of women on FTSE 100 boards, or the lack of women in Westminster (only 22% of UK MPs are women) to see that the glass ceiling has not yet fallen in.

Stereotypes of women’s role in the work place, a lack of flexibility when it comes to working hours, a culture in which men are encouraged to promote themselves from an early age and a lack of female role models are just some examples of why this situation continues.

The EU has helped enormously by putting into place equality legislation, especially relating to the work place. The EU also funds a number of actions to advance equality. The strategic leadership programme for example is funded by INTERREG IVA.

In the EU pipeline at the moment is legislation on increasing the number of women on company boards, and further work to close the gender pay gap. Such actions are especially important at a time when our government seems to be trying to roll back time for women.

The European Parliament fares better than the UK in terms of the number of women elected, whilst there is still a long way to go, 33% of MEPs are women, a number of whom hold high level positions within the institution.

One thing that I think the EU does let itself down on though in is the lack of communication to its citizens about its successes. As one of the participants pointed out, the advances that the EU has helped bring about for women’s rights often go unnoticed. Instead we are fed ridiculous Euromyths by certain media outlets about Brussels bureaucrats banning balloons and the like.

I for one am proud to be part of the EU’s actions to advance women’s rights and to get more women in to leadership roles.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round Up

Labour Party

Last week an article in the Guardian claimed we are witnessing a voluntary sector glass ceiling; this is despite the Sex and Power report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission that suggested that 48% of chief executives are female. An encouraging figure, you may think, bringing us ever closer to parity in one sector (the voluntary sector) , at least. So it was a little disappointing to learn that only 43% of charity leaders (including chief executives, and where there is no paid leadership role’s) are female, according to a report by the Clore Social Leadership Programme.

OK so it could be worse, but recognition of the lack of parity was encouraging, but only because it means it has more chance of being addressed. Authoring an article for the Guardian was Rowena Lewis who stated in the piece: ‘Frankly, I don’t think 43% is anywhere near good enough for a sector in which 68% of employees are female.’ Her report: ‘Close to Parity a Study into Female Leadership in the Voluntary Sector’ is available to download from the Clore Social Leadership Programme’s website.

You can read her article for the Guardian here.

The Telegraph reported last week that fewer places will be made available this year to prospective university students. Some 10,000 temporary places– offered in previous years to cope with a sudden surge in applications – would not be made available in 2012.

A further 5,000 places that are normally allocated to universities that over-recruit are also being cut.

Last week the Mirrors editorial claimed in a powerful, albeit short piece, that David Cameron is writing his own political obituary. ‘David Cameron’s squirming to avoid responsibility was pitiful and his blindly ploughing on, pretending it’s all someone else fault, will blight more lives on top of those already ruined by voodoo economics,’ the piece stated. I couldn’t have put it better myself. You can read the comment piece in full here.