Commissioner Reding debates with European business leaders how to increase women representation into corporate direction boards

At a specially convened summit held in Brussels on 1 March with, European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding met CEOs and chairs of boards of publicly listed companies from 10 European countries. Participant in this event took the opportunity to discuss how to get more women into top jobs and whether self-regulation by companies themselves or regulation should be the way to make significant changes quickly. Further to this meeting Commission's Justice department also held a "mini-hearing" with social partners on the same issue.

Corporate Europe is still a man's world: just one in 10 board members at Europe's biggest companies are women and in 97% of cases the board is chaired by a man. Studies show that businesses with more women at the top outperform “men only” companies. Their operating income is higher and they are better at attracting talent and understanding customers. Making the most of Europe's female talent in the workforce is not just good for business – it also benefits the economy and society as a whole. Women represent 60% of university graduates, but continue to be under-represented in economic decision-making posts.

The meeting between the Commission and business leaders and social partners is the first step towards a better gender balance in boardrooms and in senior management at Europe's biggest companies. This issue was initially raised in September 2010 when the European Commission, following a proposal by Vice-President Reding, said in its Gender Equality Strategy that it will consider targeted initiatives to improve the gender balance in decision making. On the basis of new figures published, the Commission will have an exchange of views with companies and social partners to see what measures they have taken and intend to take in the near future to improve the gender balance in board rooms. Over the next 12 months, the Commission will closely monitor progress. After that period, the Commission will assess whether further measures are required.

Important disparities between Member states on women representation in corporate direction bodies

The new report on Gender Balance in Business Leadership finds that on average women make up 12% of board members in the biggest publicly-listed companies across the EU and only 3% of board chairs. The figures vary by country, from 26% female board members in Sweden and Finland to 2% in Malta.

While progress on reaching a reasonable balance (40% of each sex) has been slow in Europe, some countries are making progress. Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark have introduced corporate governance codes and/or voluntary charters that have led to more women getting on boards. Legislation on quotas has already been introduced in Norway and is now being implemented in France and Spain. It’s also under discussion in the Netherlands, Italy and Belgium.