Gender equality has been a key principle of the EU ever since the Treaty of Rome introduced the principle of equal pay for men and women in 1957. 55 years later, with 13 directives on gender equality since the 1970s, we still need to try harder to get women at the very top – on boards. From maritime affairs to trade, from government jobs to corporate jobs, women are still the unrepresented sex on both executive and non-executive boards throughout Europe.
It is for this reason that I believe that a coordinated action is necessary at EU level to get women on boards. And a Commission proposal that sets a 40% target for women on non-executive boards by 2020 comes at the right time. It is evident that change is already taking place in some countries on this issue. 11 Member States and Norway have already adopted their own national legal solutions to get women on boards. But the reality is that change is happening slowly and inconsistently across Europe. The rate of annual increase is 0.6%, and women still represent 13.5% of board members (8.9% of executive and 15% of non-executive members).
There is a bottleneck when it comes to getting women at the top and I believe it is partly the result of the “anytime, anywhere” culture and the long working hours of senior jobs, for a woman who also chooses to be a parent. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article, the first female director of policy planning at the US State Department, argues just that – she had to quit her very demanding job, and return to academia, because she chose to bring up her young children.
Unfortunately, female talent is not fully exploited as most women still have to choose between raising their young children and working at a senior job. The senior positions working culture and environment, which were built on foundations laid down during the years when gender discrimination was the norm, are not yet fully adapted to accommodate family responsibilities. For example, only few EU companies allow their employees to work from anywhere and for as few hours as they like, so long as they get the job done.
Setting a 40% target for women on non-executive boards will allow for the working culture to change. The target will encourage the break up of norms and practices that might otherwise remain unchallenged. A coordinated action at EU level will give the necessary momentum for this change to happen quicker and more effectively. It will give the opportunity for the whole Europe to move in the same direction and see the commitments it once made in the Treaty of Rome become reality. This way all companies can realise their full potential for competitiveness and growth, choosing from the best talent pool of the best qualified women for board positions Europe-wide.