Heading up, glass ceilings
Heading up, glass ceilings
Barbara Vorsamer


BRUSSELS - "It’s done," a relieved Viviane Reding tweeted in several languages. The European Union Commission had finally approved her plan for women to constitute 40% of non-executive board directorships in large listed companies in Europe by the year 2020. In October, Reding had delayed the launch of her proposal which, having now been given the thumbs up from the Commission, must be approved by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.

It's done. The Commission has adopted my proposal for a European law so that women represent 40% of company board members by 2020

— Viviane Reding (@VivianeRedingEU) November 14, 2012

That should be cause for celebration for European women, no? And does this mean we’re finally done with all the talk about quotas, childcare subsidies and daycare options? Men aren’t the only ones who tune out when these issues are brought up again and again.

The subject of quotas, though, is too close for comfort for many men, who perceive them as a threat, and are worried about their own careers if their female colleagues are also in the running for the top slots -- there are, after all, just four corner offices per floor.

But fear not, gentlemen: Reding’s mandatory may make for great headlines: but quotas are not a threat.

A toothless tiger

But examined a little more closely, the plan emerges as a tiger without teeth. Gone are some of the items that gave it bite when it was first introduced, such as extending a mandatory quota to executive officers. Sanctions for non-compliance are much less stringent than they were initially, and the proposals wouldn’t apply to countries that already have rules in place to support women executives.

What’s more, the members of a corporate supervisory board are not decision-makers. Members meet a few times a year, take the company’s temperature, make some recommendations, and are paid a handsome fee for their efforts. The real-decision making is done by the top executives, where women are massively under-represented. In Germany, women occupy 3% of the highest-level jobs in the 200 biggest companies. The place for quotas is here – not the supervisory boards.

And now for the inevitable “but:” there are too few qualified women available for such posts, and that really constitutes the core of the problem. By this time there could easily be, in virtually every industry, a large enough pool of talented women leaders: after all, women have for years no longer been the “underrepresented sex” at the office – except in the top slots. Most of the students in German universities are women, and early on in careers – in starting positions and in the first years – there is no gender gap.

Balancing children and career

That only comes later: when instead of getting a corner office the female colleague has a baby. She then typically reduces her work hours; let’s say by a third. The pattern persists for women with children to work fewer hours, and men with children to work longer hours. In Germany, 91% of women take a 12-month maternity leave, most men none at all or at most two months. And there is no question that climbing the corporate ladder is not for those who can’t or do not wish to spend endless hours at the office.

That in turn leads to the present situation: over twice as many men occupy Germany’s four million management jobs (the figure includes lower and middle management). The higher up the ladder you go, the more this inequality is exacerbated all the way to the CEO who can then claim he’d love to see a woman among the top executives but unfortunately can’t find one who qualifies.

So the most important thing – a far higher priority than quotas for women on boards or even top female executives – is creating the framework for careers to coexist equitably with having a family. Flexible work times, meaning that the employee isn’t the only one who’s flexible but the employer is too. A corporate culture in which constant presence at the office is not a criterion for evaluating performance. Enough affordable daycare, and kindergartens and schools where kids can spend the whole day. Men who do their bit helping in the house and raising the kids, and not least: women who demand more from their partners.

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