Europe: Women in the Boardroom

Can women bring about the socially responsible management change that the world is waiting for?

The perpetual exclusion of women from the top seats of global corporations and financial institutions has led to a boardroom gender revolution in the European Union. Spain and France have followed Norway’s example by legislating mandatory gender representation in corporate leadership.

“People have to recognize there’s something wrong with virtually all companies being presided, managed and directed by men. The exclusion of women is robbing businesses and society of a lot of talent and perspective they could be benefiting from merely by letting the other half of the population in the room,” claims Noëlle Lenoir, Ethics Expert for the European Commission, former French Minister of European Affairs.

In 2003, the enlightened nation of Norway began the trend to rectify gender imbalance in the boardroom by mandating a legal quota that 40% of public company directorships go to women by 2009. Spain soon followed suit with the mandate to reach 40% women in boardrooms by 2015.  Last year, France adopted the same policy by legislating that women hold 40% of board seats by 2017. The UK’s “30% Club” is  a new movement emerging from the Cass Business School in London to mandate 30% of boards seats be filled by women. The European Union is currently considering a 20% rule; the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland and Belgium are debating  legal quotas as well.  

Lenoir claims that women are the answer to the current short-sighted push for socially unprogressive profits. “One of the ways women are different from men is that we’re more inclined to factor in social responsibilities and objectives along with business objectives and bottom lines. More women will alter the myopic financier thinking now dominating boards.”

Gender equality supporters claim that quotas alone will not bring about the change in management style that is necessary to avoid the calamities of the recent past.  Proponents argue that gender balance in top leaderships roles beyond the boardroom is crucial to a socially responsible financial system.

 “We’ll never know if Lehman Brothers might have avoided collapse if it had been Lehman Sisters, but a wider range of perspectives and opinions in its leadership would have made it less likely that inordinate risk and bad decisions would have been taken,” according to Ruth Sealy, senior research fellow and deputy director of the International Centre for Women Leaders at England’s Cranfield School of Management.

Meanwhile despite the fact that Germany has a female prime minister, its corporate leadership lags far behind. Only 2.2% of boardroom directorships are held by women and not one German public company has a female CEO. Bascha Mika, the first woman editor-in-chief of a national German newspaper and author of The Cowardice of Women is challenging the German government to change the system. Her solution? A 50% legal quota for women in business leadership. Says Mika: “Men support each other, and although it’s not called a male quota, it works like a quota, and a 100 percent quota at that.  And then, I’m sorry to say, you get some really naive women saying, ‘We don’t want a quota’ — as if men, de facto, didn’t profit from it themselves.” 

Yet the elephant in the room remains the backward U.S. corporate culture where only 3% of public companies have female CEOs and 16% of board seats are occupied by women. The clock is ticking for American corporate culture to join the 21st century gender revolution. It is only a matter of time before enlightened female and male business leaders in the U.S. rise to the challenge.

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