WHEN you read the World Economic Forum’s seventh annual Global Gender Gap Report it’s clear that European women are slowly but surely taking their rightful place in politics, business and as regards access to jobs and education.
The rest of the world can certainly learn from Europe on ways of getting rid of policies which discriminate against women in politics and business. Unfortunately, however, Europe’s battle for gender equality is by no means over.
True, as the WEF points out, Europe is top of the league in closing the gender gap in four key areas: access to healthcare, access to education, political participation and economic equality.
Iceland holds on to the top spot with the best overall score on both educational attainment and political empowerment, followed by Finland, Norway, Sweden and Ireland respectively.
The gender reality in Europe is much more complicated, however. The EU gets to be top of the WEF list because of the commendable performance of the four Nordic countries which have closed over 80 per cent of their gender gaps.
But elsewhere across the continent — and within EU institutions themselves — the struggle for male-female equality remains an uphill one.
For proof of the work still needed to create a level playing field between men and women look no further than the European Commission’s much-publicised decision last week to put off a long-awaited proposal on pushing for the appointment of more women on corporate boards. The delay was due to dissension within the Commission on the need for legally binding quotas for women.
A day later, the European Parliament rejected the appointment of Yves Mersch to the European Central Bank’s executive board, saying it wanted a woman in the job.
“We are objecting to the EU’s most powerful institution being run by only men for the next six years,” Sharon Bowles, chairwoman of the EU Parliament’s economic and monetary affairs committee, told reporters.
At the moment, all 17 central bank governors in the euro area are men and, within the Frankfurt-based ECB itself, few of its managers are women. Two women, Sirkka Haemaelaeinen of Finland and Gertrude Tumpel-Gugerell of Austria previously sat on the ECB’s six- member executive board.
The parliamentary vote is not binding and EU leaders may override it if they feel that a decision on the board of the ECB cannot be put off. EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy had in fact earlier insisted it was urgent to fill the ECB vacancy and said he had appealed to Europe’s leaders “to identify and propose good female candidates for vacant posts” at the European level. This was especially important “in the economic and financial sectors, where the under representation of women is blatant”, he said.
MEPs have made a strong point: although women are moving up the ladder, decision-making in the EU — both in business and politics — is still in the hands of men. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the exception of course as is Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign minister.
Meanwhile, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has been forced to abandon plans to set a 40 per cent mandatory quota for women representation on the boards of top companies by 2020 because of opposition from some key European commissioners.
Currently, less than 14 per cent of corporate board members are women and it would take another 40 years at least to bridge the gender gap, say those who favour the quota. Binding quotas are needed, Reding argues, because all voluntary systems so far have failed.
After the Commission decided to put off the vote for a few weeks, Reding vowed: “I will not give up”. In fact, insiders admit that for all their rhetoric on equal opportunities, EU institutions do not yet practise what they preach.
Reding has noted there are 27 per cent women in senior management posts in the commission and 33 per cent in the college of commissioners. The ECB has about 40 per cent female staff overall. But less than 20 per cent of its top 80 or so directors are women. Nine EU countries, including Britain, are against the proposal on establishing quotas. But France has come out in support of the initiative.
Reding’s tough stance on promoting women to top jobs in Europe has led to speculation that she may try and lobby for the post of European Commission president when the current team is replaced in 2014. “In case of equal qualifications, the under-represented sex must get the job” is Reding’s guiding principle, according to policymakers.
The WEF and others say that women are needed in top jobs not just because it is morally right but because women bring special qualities to the table which can help increase the competitiveness of nations and societies.
However, while many favour setting up a level playing field, they do object to establishing binding quotas for special categories of people. One argument is that quotas are demeaning for those who are appointed under such a regime — and that the focus should be on merit and qualification of people rather than their gender.
The problem is, however, that given the current male-dominated networks and the fact that many of the top business and political leaders in Europe are male, the search for qualified people is inevitably restricted to men.
Quotas may therefore be necessary to break this male-led vicious circle and get some much-needed diversity into Europe’s boardrooms.
I would be delighted if Reding’s zealous pursuit of gender equality was followed up by an equally passionate move to bring more minority representation into the European economic and political mainstream. But as an EU policymaker confided: “For Europe today, talking about women’s rights is controversial enough but focusing on the rights of minorities would be a step too far.”
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.