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EU postpones gender quota decision for boardrooms

Boardroom gender quotas that Malta would have vetoed is postponed by Commissioner Viviane Reding.

Staff Reporter
23 October 2012, 12:00am
Viviane Reding's proposal for boardroom quotas was not supported by Malta's justice minister Chris Said.
The European Commission has put off its proposal of a law requiring publicly listed firms to have at least 40 per cent women on their boards.

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, who met the Commission today to unveil her plan to boost gender diversity on corporate boards, said voluntary schemes to put more women at the top of major companies had failed.

She tweeted the news at 4pm, saying the gender balance directive had been postponed, and then added that Commission president Jose Barroso, as well as Antonio Tajani, Olli Rehn, Joaquin Almunia, Michel Barnier, Laszlo Andor, Andris Piebalgs were supporting the law.

Reding is believed to have only a minority of commissioners supporting efforts to set a 40% quota of women on non-executive corporate boards, which provide advice to senior managers. While there is support for the goal, there is intense opposition from pro-business colleagues in the Commission and member states to mandatory targets.

Commission officials said privately that concern about imposing fresh mandates on businesses at a time when jobs and growth are and EU priority is likely to doom any binding proposals.

But women's groups, including the European Women's Lobby, say whatever is likely to survive from Reding's efforts will be too weak to have immediate impact to change today's lopsided gender situation. Women comprise fewer than 15% of EU companies' board members.

"There really is no reason for anyone to oppose it at this point because it is so weak," said Leanda Barrington-Leach, spokeswoman for the European Women's Lobby, noting that draft Commission proposals only applied to non-executive posts and set no EU-wide sanctions for companies that fail to comply.

Some of the strongest opposition within the 27-member EU executive has come from some of the nine female commissioners. Catherine Ashton, in charge of foreign policy, and Connie Hedegaard, the Climate Action boss, have opposed quotas.

Figures released by Reding's office say 86.5% of board members and 97.5% of board chairs in the EU are men. In September 2010, the Commission adopted a Gender Equality Strategy aimed at boosting gender diversity in corporations.

Only France sets a 40% gender quota for corporate boards and sets fines for violators. Otherwise, policies vary across the EU, either through voluntary quotas or limited mandates. Denmark, Finland, Greece, Austria and Slovenia have adopted rules on gender balance for the boards of state-owned companies.

Ministers from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands and the UK stated in the letter that although they agreed that there needed to be a better gender balance on company boards, measures to improve the situation should be taken at the level of the member states rather than the EU.

France - which is bringing in its own law that will force companies based there to have 20% of women on its boards by 2014 and 40% by 2017 - has written to the Commission to say that it is in favour of EU legislation. Belgium and Austria have also given their support.