Smashing the Glass Ceiling: Getting Women into European Boardrooms

Leading up to International Women’s Day, European Union (EU) justice commissioner Viviane Reding announced that she is considering enforcing a quota to break the glass ceiling and increase the participation of women in the boardrooms of European companies. This suggestion has stirred debate about the possible downsides of such a quota, especially in comparison with voluntary targets that aim to increase gender equality in European big business.

Sexist objections include platitudes such as the board meeting having to end at three o’clock because the CEO must pick up the children from school, half of the board of directors having synchronised menstrual cycles causing the top of the company to be instable, and CFO’s only being available on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Obviously, there are also serious objections to the quota. Hypothetically, a quota could mean that women that are insufficiently qualified will become members of boards, merely to meet the numbers prescribed by the European Union. This would not only make these women token board members, but it would also mean that a potentially sufficiently qualified male would be denied a job that he would be more suitable for. And would an emancipated woman really want a job that has been created thanks to a job quota? Wouldn’t she be regarded as merely having made it into the board room due to EU regulation?

In reality, the enforcement of a quota will in all likeliness have very little impact, if any, on the odds of an under-qualified woman becoming a board member. Why? Because this objection presupposes that there aren’t enough capable women who can become board members, which is of course utter nonsense: in a high number of countries around the globe, female performance in tertiary education is equal to that of men, if not better, and there are uncountable examples of women that occupy high-level positions in governments, international governing bodies, non-governmental organisations, and various other sectors. There is nothing wrong on the supply side! In addition, the argument could be reversed: wouldn’t the customary hiring of male board members cause better suited women to miss out?

The argument that truly emancipated women would not want to become a board member due to a quota is essentially a non-argument. Naturally, any woman making it into a board room should be very talented and would have worked extremely hard to get there, regardless whether a quota would be enforced or not. The image of women simply becoming board members because of their gender couldn’t be more wrong.

But what about the proponents of voluntary initiatives to increase gender equality in businesses? Ironically, it is the failure of European businesses to put in place voluntary targets that has caused the EU to consider implementing a quota: only 24 out of the EU’s estimated 20 million businesses signed up to a voluntary initiative that aimed to raise female representation on boards from 13.7 percent to 30 percent by 2015 and 40 percent by 2020. This clearly indicates that self-regulatory mechanisms have not lead to satisfactory results, which justifies the use of bolder measures like regulatory quota.

Proponents of female participation in boardrooms have argued that smashing the glass ceiling will contribute to diversity, positive competitiveness and economic growth, but a much simpler and stronger statement is to simply say that an enforced quota would mean a sheer increase of potential top executives and growth of the European talent pool.

2 thoughts on “Smashing the Glass Ceiling: Getting Women into European Boardrooms

    1. All very true, but I don’t think it’s the governments job to help larger companies to make full use of their employee potential. I don’t think forcing them is a good idea either; a bigger change would have to take place.
      To realy create an environment where the best man or woman have an equal chance a lot of old-fashioned board members would have to make way. This will happen eventually, but in time and not because of quotas, but because of reality catching up with them.


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