For Twitter followers of the EU justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, it will be clear what has been on her mind recently. From 5 October until the middle of last week, she had tweeted 17 times. Apart from when she was distracted by the award of the Nobel peace prize to the EU and gave a single tweet to welcome it, the rest were about the vexed question as to how to advance women in the boardroom.
The recent political history is recited in her Twitter account in short bursts - ‘It's time to shatter the glass ceiling keeping women out of top jobs’; ‘Without women on board, European companies will lose the battle for the best and the brightest’; ‘All Commissioners w/ economic portfolios join me in this battle’; ‘This week, I will fight for a Directive to bring about gender equality in corporate boardrooms’; ‘Of course, there will be some opposition’; ‘Gender balance directive postponed’; ‘I will not give up. @BarrosoEU will put this on the Commission agenda again before the end of November’. So, battle will be resumed on 14 November over whether to have a quota of 40% by 2020 imposed on publicly-listed European companies.
Depending on the attitude you take to quotas, the UK government has played a shameful/heroic part in this delay, because Vince Cable – that famous woman who has succeeded against all odds in spite of her gender – led a group of nine governments in opposing the notion of quotas. Interestingly, in commissioner Reding’s efforts to persuade her fellow commissioners to back quotas, we are told that numerous powerful men joined her – Barroso himself, Michel Barnier (internal market), Antonio Tajani (industry), Olli Rehn (economic affairs), Joaquín Almunia (competition), László Andor (employment) and Andris Piebalgs (development) – while numerous powerful women apparently opposed her - Neelie Kroes (digital agenda), Cecilia Malmström (home affairs), our very own Catherine Ashton (external action), Connie Hedegaard (climate action) and Máire Geoghegan-Quinn (research).
A further interesting aspect of this dilemma is that the only directly-elected part of the EU institutions – the parliament – is in favour of quotas. The heads of the principal parties - EPP (conservatives), Socialist, Liberal and Greens, as well as the radical left - would prefer if quotas were not necessary, but point out that the percentage of women on the executive boards of big European companies is still too low. Within listed public enterprises, only 14% are at the highest level of decision-making, even though 60% of university graduates in the EU are women.
This saga has become intertwined with another taking place simultaneously, where the parliament has been able to use its limited muscle: the appointment of a new board member to the European Central Bank. A Luxembourg man, Yves Mersch, has been nominated. No one doubts his qualifications for the post, but he is the wrong gender for some, since the rest of the ECB’s board is made up of men, and there will not be the opportunity to appoint anyone new again until 2018. The European parliament, which has only a consultative (and not a blocking) role, has voted against his nomination by 325 votes to 300, with 49 abstentions. One MEP asked him to withdraw his candidacy, which he refused to do. There was a female ECB board member - Gertrude Tumpel Gugerell - until last year.
At the International Women in Law Summit 2012, hosted by the Law Society earlier this year to mark International Women’s Day, women lawyers opposed quotas as patronising, and preferred diversity targets. However, commissioner Reding would presumably say that she has tried that: she started by calling on enterprises to sign European pledges, but only 24 responded to her call. Norway is usually cited as the country where quotas for women in the boardroom have worked, and there is background information on the long-running debate.
This is a very difficult issue on which there are proper and reasonable arguments on both sides. Since it is cowardly to describe the issue in some detail and not take sides, I will say I support the Reding party.
Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents about one million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs