Gender equality is still a problem in many Irish board rooms

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Ireland has a low proportion of women on the boards of major companies compared to other European countries.

Fewer than one in five directors of major corporations here are women, compared to 40pc in Norway.

By and large the further north you travel in Europe the higher the proportion of female directors.

Portugal has the lowest proportion of female board members of any European country, with just 5pc of board seats held by women there.

Greece followed with 6.7pc and Italy with 10.5pc. Spain and Ireland are next.

The figures are from research compiled by Bloomberg Intelligence.

In Ireland, state-owned companies do tend to have a higher share of women directors.

Norway, Finland and France have the greatest level of female participation. All three countries have set legal minimums for female directors.

Norway, where close to half of all board members are women, introduced its 40pc quota in 2003. Italy, Spain, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands also have quotas.

Ireland, along with the UK and most countries on the continent, leaves the make up of company boards up to their shareholders.

"It looks so anachronistic in the modern world to have so few women on boards," according to Helena Morrissey.

She is a founder of the 30pc Club, named after its target for female representation on the boards of companies in the FTSE100 Index of leading UK-listed companies.

She said companies' failure to fully value women workers is a drag on entire economies.

"One of the big problems for economic growth is too few women in the labour force and those who are not fulfilling their full potential, so I wonder if that's part and parcel of the problems of engineering growth in some of these countries," she said. However, she cautioned against focusing on quotas to drive change.

Legislating for quotas is problematic because it focuses attention at board level while potentially neglecting the number of women managers at other levels of the companies, she said.

From that perspective encouraging more women to move up through the senior ranks of companies, rather than a top down approach, is the key to developing cohorts of women directors.

The UK and Finland have seen campaigns by advocacy groups that used "name and shame" tactics to encourage gender balance on boards while stopping short of laying down new laws.

The value of Norwegian companies has dropped since its board structure was shaken up to include more women, but that coincided with the global downturn meaning its impossible to know whether businesses would have faired better left to their own, traditional, devices.