Why imposing Quotas on Corporate Boards is not Gender Equality

Posted on 17. March 2015

by Marsida Bandilli

marsida-bandilliThe World Economic Forum (WEF), founded in 1971, has a long-standing tradition of adequately progressing important issues from sectors of business, government and civil society. It is also the place where prominent European business leaders meet annually with high-state representatives. It is due to its unique nature that the Forum has had, since its founding, considerable success in raising political, economic and social awareness, while bringing the latest trends and developments in many fields to the fore. In addition, this forum has also been a catalyst for a number of significant global initiatives in the past, such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the development of the G20 concept,… just to mention a few.

In the forum’s 45th annual meeting at Davos, its agenda had a theme entitled “The New Global Context”. Delegates discussed the effects of political, economic and social uncertainty on future policy-making. However, for some of the issues, its aim is to transform the dialogue into insights, insights into agendas, and agendas into action. At the heart of the debate was the Global Gender Gap Report 2014, which addresses the magnitude of gender-based disparities and tracks their progress over time. As the wide gender gap still is apparent around the globe, the Global Gender Gap Index (GGG) presented in this report aimed to measure one significant indicator of gender equality: the relative gaps between women and men across four areas: health, education, economy and politics. Nowadays, equality between women and men – promoting the equal participation of women and men in decision-making processes, supporting women so that they can fully exercise their rights; and reducing the gap between women’s and men’s access to and control of resources and the benefits of development – is the ‘big challenge’ of gender equality advancement.

Equality between women and men is one of the core values of our modern societies. The European Union has also transformed it in one of the key principles, where significant progress has been made over the last decades. Since 1957, with the signing of the Treaty of Rome, the Union boosted gender equality through introducing the principle of equal pay at work. Throughout the years, the EU has been an advocate for gender equality, by taking the necessary measures that contribute to securing better education and training for women. So far, equal treatment legislation, gender mainstreaming (integration of the gender perspective into all other policies), specific measures for the advancement of women, especially in the labour market, have all been encouraged.

Despite these measures, women are still over-represented in lower-paid sectors and under-represented in decision-making positions. While many countries around the world are making progress in increasing women’s presence in high-level positions of political and economic power, an important law was approved in the German Parliament. At the eve of Women’s Day, “The Gender Quota for Corporate Boards” was adopted, implying that major German companies will soon be required to ensure that women make up 30 percent of their supervisory boards. The so-called “frauenquote” or “women’s quota” will be implemented from 2016 onwards.

Achieving full equality, in theory and in practice, through legislation was a vital and necessary step. Boycotts, campaigns, mass political and social movements have been organized in order to improve women’s position within their societies. However, in between countries there are multiple variations on how women have experienced racial/ethnic, class and gender oppression. At the same time, the country-specific context has served as a catalyst that catapulted respective movements and gendered campaigns. What has been the outcome of the series of campaigns and manifestations is that gender equality is nowadays considered as a human right. Women are entitled to live with dignity and with freedom. Women are becoming more empowered and are contributing to their communities and societies, even though in some particular locations in the world gender equality remains an ‘unfulfilled promise’.

Gender is a cross-cutting issue and is mainstreamed in each of the different parts of society, which ensures a more integrated approach and equal opportunities. Simultaneously, a core community of gender equality researchers, which was established in the last few decades, has contributed to the drawing of clear front lines in the equality debate. Countries are progressively moving towards achieving the Millennium Development Goal, where the MDG3 is specifically focused towards “promoting gender equality and empowering women, including education and additional indicators on women’s employment and political representation”.

However, I would like to argue here that imposing the “Gender Quota for Corporate Boards” is a good, but not a necessary step to follow. Constitutional experts may bring their arguments if this piece of legislation is (un)constitutional and incompatible with EU law and regulations. Even though quota’s in this case aim to boost women’s representation in high-economic positions, there are a few strong arguments for opposing such legislation. Such quotas discriminate against the individual man who happens to be running against a woman and is competing for the same seat. This goes against the principles of “gender equity”, which appears to be one of the main building blocks on the path to achieve gender equality. Hence, women and men should receive equal treatment, and should not be discriminated against based on their gender.

Are the supervisory boards the real decision-makers in a company? To my knowledge, the board of management – where women are also under-represented – is usually the ‘real body’ that takes important decisions in a company. Even if women get represented on supervisory boards, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will be able to promote their own views. What if their decisions follow the same lines as their male counterparts? What if no qualified women are found for those positions? And most importantly, how will these measures contribute towards changing the general culture in our societies? Perhaps a more integrated approach for addressing the barriers that hold women back should be put forward. Management must be hands-on and visibly committed to achieving the gender-diversity goal and leaders should be able to crack the code of leadership while creating opportunities for talented women, supporting regular discussions and following up; ‘gender’ should be a spotlight issue.

In general, one receives the impression that while gender equality is used to refer to the overarching canopy of equal rights and opportunities, in all spheres of human activity, gender equity has a more narrow application and strongly economic or rather material connotations. Merely, there are more prominent issues to address in order to advance gender equality: gender parity in primary and secondary education, especially in Southern and Western Asian and African regions, more employment opportunities for women in developing countries, fighting unemployment rates and gender wage gaps in global labor markets, as well as increasing women’s representation in politics not solely through saving a seat for them, but by giving them an opportunity to get represented in political parties and party memberships.

However, to conclude my point, I will pose one question to all the representatives of our parliaments, who are responsible for deciding the path of our societies: Will the proposed quotas put women against one another because they are competing for a certain number of “women’s seats”? And how will that contribute to women’s unity and advancement of gender equality? Moreover, is gender equality about making women’s lives more like men’s? Or is it about liberating women, letting them choose to be whoever they truly want to be? I certainly do believe that women are able to accelerate their professional growth on their way to the top by overcoming barriers that companies, societies and women themselves put in the way. They can fulfill their own potential and follow their own aspirations and ambitions. By participating in their own communities and societies, they are capable to demonstrate that success is within reach “with or without quotas”.