14th Apr 2024

Done 'asking nicely', EU adopts rules for more women on boards

  • MEPs Lara Wolters (c) and Evelyn Regner (l), the key legislators of Women on Board (Photo: European Parliament)
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The EU on Tuesday (22 November) adopted legislation to increase the number of women on the boards of big companies in the EU, in the fight against gender discrimination.

MEPs backed the legislation — which took 10 years for lawmakers and EU member states to agree on.

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The new rules aim to have at least 40 percent of non-executive director posts, or one-third of all director posts on publicly-listed firms filled by women by July 2026.

And priority to the under-represented gender needs to be given in cases where two candidates are equally qualified, the new rules say.

Companies with fewer than 250 employees will be exempt from the regulations.

The rules require EU countries to impose "effective" penalties for companies that do not reach the targets, including fines, or being publicly named and shamed.

"This is a short piece of legislation and it is all the more telling, that we had to wait 10 years [for it] to happen," European Parliament president Roberta Metsola said on Tuesday, adding that "the first word that comes to mind is 'finally'".

She called the legislation a "potential trailblazer".

"We are finally giving women a fair chance to be in top corporate positions," said Austrian MEP Evelyn Regner, one of those who spearheaded the push for new rule.

"We are removing one of the main hurdles for women to get the top jobs: informal male networks. From now on, competence will count more," she added.

More 'Peters' than women

On average, across the EU, just 30 percent of board members in companies are women. The figure varies between member states, ranging from 45 percent in France to eight percent in Cyprus.

Dutch MEP Lara Wolters, another leading lawmaker on the file, said that while 60 percent of graduates from European universities are women, out of 100 CEOs only 8 are women.

"There are more CEOs named Peter in the Netherlands, than there are woman CEOs," she added.

"The reason for their under-representation in the board room is not a lack of merit or talent, it is structural problems that disadvantage women in their careers, especially when they want to take on leadership roles," Wolters said.

She added that more needs to be done by having affordable and quality child care, better parental leave, having part-time work acceptable for men, and the need to tackle harassment and gender stereotyping.

'Ask nicely'

In the parliamentary debate, German MEP Christine Anderson from the hard-right Alternative for Germany said the legislation was "a step back in a Marxist, ideological, so-called better world", and accused the "elite" of imposing what they think is good for the people.

MEP Margarita de la Pisa Carrión from the Spanish far-right Vox party called quotas "discriminatory", and said the move is "a political interference"

Wolters addressed also those who argue that quotas are not effective and will lead to appointments based on gender rather than merit.

"It is about time we left that argument where it belongs, in the previous century. We have tried asking nicely, we tried waiting for the old boys networks to die out, and to no avail," the Dutch lawmaker said.

"Where there is a lack of will, you need a law," she told fellow lawmakers.

Eight countries — Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Portugal, Greece and the Netherlands — have national gender quotas applicable to the boards of listed companies.

In October 2022, women accounted for 38.3 percent of the board members of the largest listed companies in countries with national-binding quotas, compared to 31.4 percent in those with soft measures, and just 17.5 percent in those that have taken no action at all, according to data from the EU Commission.

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