Company Boards and Thwarted Quotas: the Glacial Pace of Change

Aileen McColgan

Women hold fewer than one in seven seats on the boards of the largest listed public companies across the European Union.[1] In Norway, where a 40% quota has been in force for some time, they account for 42% of Board positions. And in France, which introduced quotas in January 2011, the proportion of women on Boards increased from 12% to 22% in a single year.[2]

Viviane Reding, vice president of the European Commission, has been spearheading efforts to introduce quotas at EU level for women on Boards, explaining in an article in the New York Times on 10 October 2012 that “I tried first with persuasion… Voluntary measures have not achieved any progress, and if we continue at that pace we will need 40 or 50 years.”[3]

It was being reported in early September 2012 that the Commission was to propose mandatory quotas of 40% women in non executive director positions by 2018 in publicly owned companies, 2020 in private companies employing at least 250 people or with a revenue of €50 million.[4] Enforcement would be by fines and/or exclusion from public contract. Reding was quoted in the New York Times stating that quotas would not be enforced in the absence of suitably qualified women but that a list of over 7,000 ‘board-ready’ women had been drawn up by European business schools and others. Britain, in which women currently account for a record 16% (just under one in six) of FTSE 100 boards,[5] and 2.5% of FTSE 100 chief executive positions, was reported to be leading the opposition.

On 23 October it was reported that debate on the proposal had been postponed to November with concerns being expressed about whether there was any Treaty basis for it. The previous day the EU Parliament had criticised the fact that no female candidates had been put forward for a position on the executive board of the European Central Bank (ECB), the effect of which would be that the board would be entirely male until 2018 if Luxembourg’s candidate, were not withdrawn by the European Council.

A watered down proposal on female board membership is expected to be presented on 14 November 2012 with the 40% a target rather than a mandatory quota and enforcement a matter for Member States alone. Unless the EU Parliament succeeds in adding fire to the belly of the Commission it would appear to be a victory then for those who ascribe the under-representation of women in public life to an excess of male merit, rather than the tendency of those in power to see merit in those most like themselves.


[1] James Fontanella-Khan, “EU pushes 40% quota for women on boards” Financial Times 3 September 2012.See also the Commission’s Women in economic decision-making in the EU; Progress report March 2012, http://ec.europa.eu/justice/gender-equality/files/women-on-boards_en.pdf.

[2] Ibid (Financial Times).

[3] Stephen Castle, “European Commission Official Fights for Women in the Boardroom”.

[4] James Fontanella-Khan, “EU pushes 40% quota for women on boards” Financial Times 3 September 2012.

[5] BBC News, “European Union postpones women quota on boards plan”, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-20039540.

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