Women on Boards Directive must be unblocked in Council, MEPs argue

The Directive, which has been stuck in the legislative pipeline since 2013, aims to reach a minimum of 40 percent of women on non-executive boards of EU companies.
Woman on board

By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

06 Oct 2020

MEPs hammered home the need to forge ahead with the Women on Boards Directive in a plenary debate on Monday evening.

In the debate with European Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli and German Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth, deputies voiced their frustration at the lack of movement on the Directive, which was proposed by the European Commission in 2012.

The European Parliament adopted its position on the Directive the following year and since then it has been blocked by a minority of Member States in the Council.

The Directive stipulates that at least 40 percent of company board members should be women by 2018 in the public sector and by 2020 in the private sector.

The file was included in the list of unfinished business to be carried over to the current Commission. Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, stated in her Political Guidelines that she will seek to build a majority to unblock the Directive. It is also one of the priorities in the Commission's new EU Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025.

Opening the debate, Michael Roth said that gender equality and justice between the genders is a priority of the German presidency of the EU.

“The last attempt was made in 2017 to reach an agreement on Women on Boards. We all share here a common interest – we have to break through the glass ceiling. In the political domain we have made substantial progress, but here in the European Parliament it’s 38 percent women – that’s not enough because half of our society are women and they should be represented on equal terms.”

“We know that voluntary measures are not enough; we need binding measures, we need binding quotas – only then do women have a fair chance” Evelyn Regner chair of FEMM Committee

Roth said that he was not at the debate as a representative of the German Federal government, but of Council instead, adding, “despite the controversial discussions in my own government I stand here as an honest broker.”

“Legal stipulations can achieve positive effects when it comes to leading positions in business. We [in Germany] have set out a quota, so a third of positions in supervisory boards are now occupied by women. That is a step in the right direction. In the boards where there is no legal arrangement yet, unfortunately the proportion is still well below 10 percent.”

He concluded, “the German Presidency will live up to its role as an honest broker in Council.”

According to the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), in 2018 women accounted for only 26 percent of all board members in the largest listed companies registered in the EU.

Only in France, Italy, Sweden, Finland and Germany did women account for more than 33 percent of board members.

Taking the floor, Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli expressed her gratitude for the support being shown in Parliament on moving the Women on Boards Directive forward.

“We urgently need progress on this file, now more than ever. Progress regarding female representation on corporate boards and business leadership positions remains very slow and uneven across the EU. The figures from the Gender Equality Index are of concern. They clearly show that we need urgent action.”

“We have this glass ceiling; it’s basically a cement ceiling. The Women on Boards Directive is stuck in Council and Member States - even mine, the Netherlands - are refusing to vote for this Directive, because they’re talking about subsidiarity. That’s always an easy excuse” Samira Rafaela, Renew Europe

“On average, only around 28 percent board members of the largest publicly-listed companies registered in the EU are women. Women still only account for 8 percent of CEOs; these are not the numbers of a gender-equal Europe, nor do they reflect the talent available.”

“Beyond being a matter of equality, or lack thereof, this is a clear waste of human capital. Evidence shows that a broad range of talents and skills in the boardroom contributes to better decisions, better corporate governance and public trust in business.”

Dalli added, “Our message is clear - the adoption of the Directive would represent a major step forward in our fight for gender equality in Europe. It would send a strong, clear message to EU citizens and beyond that the European economy makes the best use of all its talent.”

Evelyn Regner, chair of Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM), said, “Women are an asset in every company when they are also on the board. We know that voluntary measures are not enough; we need binding measures, we need binding quotas – only then do women have a fair chance.”

“Countries with a binding quota have about 10 percent more women on boards than in countries with only voluntary measures. This Women on Boards Directive has been blocked in the Council and we say we don’t accept, in the European Parliament this snail’s pace; we need to speed up in order to have equal chances.”

Dutch Renew Europe deputy Samira Rafaela said, “We have this glass ceiling; it’s basically a cement ceiling. The Women on Boards Directive is stuck in Council and Member States - even mine, the Netherlands - are refusing to vote for this Directive, because they’re talking about subsidiarity. That’s always an easy excuse.”

She continued, “The Corona crisis has shown how women have been there at the frontline. So I think it’s very clear, more than ever, that we need these women on board. Young women growing up now – we need to show them that they can get to the top as well.”

“The adoption of the Directive would represent a major step forward in our fight for gender equality in Europe. It would send a strong, clear message to EU citizens and beyond that the European economy makes the best use of all its talent” Helena Dalli, EU Commissioner for Equality

One of the few men taking part in the debate, Spanish Greens MEP Ernest Urtasun said that not only do we need women on boards, we also need more men on board with the debate.

“It is time to unblock the Directive. We have experience of countries with quotas and they have actually worked – look at Norway. At the moment Norway has, thanks to quotas, 35 percent of women on boards, while in other Member States we don’t even reach 10 percent.”

“In order to put gender equality at the top of the agenda when a lot of women are suffering inequalities now with the pandemic, EU institutions need to send a clear message that we take that seriously. I know that the [German] presidency is committed to unblocking the Directive, and I know that around 18 Member States are already convinced; I can only say please, to the German Presidency, try to unblock that file and make that file a reality by the end of the year.”

German S&D deputy Maria Noichl said, “I’d like to point to the elephant in the room: it was my country that blocked the Women on Boards Directive; it was Mrs Merkel who blocked it. I would like Mrs Merkel to take her foot off the brake with the Directive. As the current rotating president [of the EU Council] she should show respect. It’s respect for women who are taking part at all levels. It’s a sign of respect and we’ve earned it.”

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