EU Weighs Gender Quotas in the Boardroom

Cristen Conger

European Union member nations are considering whether or not to follow Norway's lead and legally institute gender quotas in the boardroom. Women head a slim minority of Fortune 500 companies in the United States, and they haven't earned much more of a corporate foothold across the pond, either. According to Forbes, women comprise 10 percent of boardroom members of European companies, which has lead some countries to move toward instituting legal reforms if businesses don't take proactive approaches to getting more women into leadership positions.

Molly and I have discussed the pros and cons of instituting gender quotas for political representation on Stuff Mom Never Told You, but the business bent is a more revolutionary concept, I'd argue. Government quotas to get more women in government make sense conceptually in terms of providing proportional political representation. However, government mandates to get more women into boardrooms takes things a couple of steps further. On the one hand, some might cry foul at such "intrusion" into privately run businesses. But on the other, it clearly acknowledges that women are smart, forward-thinking people whose contributions can improve a company's performance and bottom line -- especially in the midst of a global recession.

In 2003, Norway kicked off the trend after its MALE trade and industry minister wanted women to fill up 40 percent of the chairs at the boardroom table. For comparison, that figure hovers around 9 percent in the U.S. Scandinavian neighbors Sweden and Finland have followed in suit, with women making up around a quarter of boardroom members. As the New York Times Female Factor blog reported in January,

Indeed, the world has noticed: Spain and the Netherlands have passed similar laws, with a 2015 deadline for compliance. The French Senate will soon debate a bill phasing in a female quota by 2016, after the National Assembly approved the measure last week. Belgium, Britain, Germany and Sweden are considering legislation.

In April, TIME noted that it's still too soon to tell whether the gender quotas make economic sense. Some studies have found a negative impact from bringing in a new crop of women, while others have highlighted successes, such as a greater focus on stakeholder needs. Nevertheless, early hints of government intervention has jumpstarted the women recruitment process for some companies wishing to avoid being strongarmed into the pro-women scenario. But even government policy can't rectify issues that have kept many women out of the boardroom for so long -- namely gender politics and the endless motherhood debate. So while quotas might rightly move a select group of women into boardroom seats, we'll still need to balance the corporate playing field for the rest of us.

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