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EU sets gender quotas for the boardroom
In June, representatives of the member states of the European Union reached an agreement on an equality directive first mooted over a decade ago. From 2026 on, the composition of the boards of listed companies must be at minimum 40% female.
Under the terms of the agreement, publicly traded companies will need to ensure they have a minimum 40% - 60% ratio of women to men at the executive level. A victory, according to the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who stated, “It’s high time we break the glass-ceiling in corporate Europe with rules that work! There are many women qualified to be board members, they must be able to achieve this.”
The initial proposal a decade ago met with resistance in Germany and the UK, as well as in certain Nordic and Baltic states, the chorus of opinion being that these were issues to be handled at a national, rather than continental, level. Not that these states could be accused of fearing change as they were not the worst pupils in the equality class, quite the opposite in fact.
Leaving aside France, which has operated the 40%-minimum rule for women in the boardroom for over a decade (and has an average ratio of 45% women to 55% men in the C-suite), the UK, which left the EU in 2020, is one of the top performers, with women representing an average 39% of the boards of companies on the FTSE 100.
By way of comparison, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, the Netherlands and Italy are all within the 36% to 38% range, while at the other end of the scale Hungary and Estonia have a less than one-in-ten ratio of women to men.
A decade of encouraging progress
According to the European Institute for Gender Equality, the proportion of women on the boards of the largest listed companies on the continent jumped from 11.9% in 2010 to 31.3% today. Beyond hard and fast rules on quotas, the agreement ─ achieved in the final month of France’s rotating presidency of the European Union ─ seeks to improve transparency in the recruitment process by ensuring people are hired, “based on merit, without taking gender into account”.
According to the European Institute for Gender Equality, the proportion of women on the boards of the largest listed companies on the continent jumped from 11.9% in 2010 to 31.3% today
What this essentially means is that, if two equally qualified people are up for an executive position, where one is a man and the other a woman, the company should choose who to hire based on the gender composition of the existing board – i.e. hire the man if there are more women than men on the board already, and vise-versa.
Companies are also now going to have to reveal their selection criteria, when called upon to do so by the person eliminated from contention. Furthermore, the onus will be on the company to prove that it hasn’t broken any rules, should an unsuccessful candidate from the underrepresented gender be equally qualified.
The power to reverse nominations
It is now up to national authorities to apply the law and sanction those flouting it within their countries. Governments in each EU country have the power to reverse a nomination.
While much ink has been spilled on the merits of gender equality at boardroom level, the big French companies are broadly in alignment with prevailing opinion on an equality issue that is now just one of many to have gained momentum.
Yet when you consider that 60% of all university graduates in Europe are female, it’s perhaps time to push for true parity in the boardroom.
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