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Although the quota idea could well fail either today or later in the process, few officials disagree with the idea that something needs to be done to increase the number of women sitting on board. Photo: Thinkstock

Although the quota idea could well fail either today or later in the process, few officials disagree with the idea that something needs to be done to increase the number of women sitting on board. Photo: Thinkstock

Although the quota idea could well fail either today or later in the process, few officials disagree with the idea that something needs to be done to increase the number of women sitting on board. Photo: Thinkstock

THE European Union is likely to see another of its plans go up in flames today; this time it is a scheme to impose a 40pc female quota on listed company boards.

The plan, first floated back in March and championed by EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding, has run into fierce opposition from countries in eastern Europe along with the Netherlands and Britain. Her draft plan includes threats to fine companies with too few women and prevent them bidding for public contracts, although this may be watered down.

Brussels watchers say the European commissioners who form President Jose Manuel Barroso's cabinet will demand a vote on the issue today -- the first vote on any issue since Mr Barroso took the top job in 2004.

A simple majority of those present will decide whether to put the idea to heads of government or quietly kill it.

Among those already opposing the proposal are four female commissioners, including Ireland's Maire Geoghegan-Quinn.

Those officially supporting the plan include commissioners Olli Rehn and Michel Barnier.

Although the quota idea could well fail either today or later in the process, few officials disagree with the idea that something needs to be done to increase the number of women sitting on boards.

Ms Reding, who made the proposal, says that at current rates it would take another 40 years for women to have equal representation on boards throughout Europe.

"I think we're slowly running out of patience everywhere in Europe," she said back in March when she unveiled the details of her plan.

Variation

As our graphic shows, the presence of women on boards varies widely from country to country both inside Europe and further afield, but 40 years sounds optimistic.

Here in Ireland, we lag behind the average for industrialised countries. Figures from GMI Ratings, a US organisation that uses non-traditional risk metrics to help investors model risk, show that around 8.5pc of board members are women compared to an average of 11.1pc in the world's industrialised countries. Indeed, the average in Ireland is closer to the average of 7.2pc seen in emerging markets.

Depressingly for women, the situation shows little sign of getting better as time goes on. Ireland is one of just three industrialised countries to see a decline in the percentage of women on boards over the past three years.

Greece and the Netherlands are the other two, suggesting that countries experiencing extreme economic pressure may be less likely to take a "risk" on a woman than other countries.

While Ireland has small absolute numbers of women on boards, tokenism seems to be alive and well and we score highly when it comes to companies with at least one woman on the board.

Just under 78pc of Irish companies have at least one woman on the board compared to an average of 63pc across industrial countries. Latin countries score very badly on this metric with Portugal at 36pc and Italy at 42pc.

We score far less impressively when it comes to boards with three women or more.

Just 5.6pc of Irish companies make the grade here compared to more than twice that percentage in Spain and six times this figure in France. Still, we beat Switzerland at a miserly 3.6pc or Portugal which had no companies at all.

While these figures must be treated with caution -- female representation may be higher in countries where unions appoint representatives to the board for example -- they go some way to explaining why Commissioner Reding is so anxious to impose quotas on companies today and also highlight what a significant change this would mean to the make-up of Irish boardrooms.

Irish Independent