The Lisbon Treaty and the Charter of Fundamental Rights came into force in 2010. They both foresee the non-discrimination of gender in general and in the workplace specifically (art. 19 of the Treaty; art. 21 and 23 of the Charter).

Some of the problems I was confronted with as I took over as Commission Vice-President, responsible for justice and equality, was: how to avoid a further drop in female participation at the professional decision-making level? How to avoid the drastic loss of capacity, knowing that young women, on average in the EU, represented 60% of university graduates but only 14% of board positions and had 7% of management responsibility?

How to avoid a waste of experience and talent, at a moment when society and economy were in dire need of these, confronted with baby-boomer age groups moving into retirement. Experts (from Deutsche Bank, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs and others) had calculated that companies with solid female participation in management and top-decision-making achieved better financial results than all-male-structures. Despite these findings, old boy networks blocked the female talent, reinforced the glass ceiling and led to a drop-out of female professionals, who – in the absence of role models – gave up their future career possibilities at an early stage.

The political decision to achieve a break-through was a legal proposal aimed at:

  • 40% of the “underrepresented sex” at supervisory boards of listed companies;
  • if there were two candidates of equal capacity, the position had to be given to the “underrepresented sex”;
  • a “sunset clause” eliminating the proposal when the goal was reached.

At the institutional level, the co-legislators had opposing reactions: The European Parliament got a strong majority for decisive action, whereas the Council of Ministers (national government representatives) opposed the text, following the lead mainly of Germany and the Netherlands.

At the level of civil society, the development was quite different: strong movements of women and like-minded men got themselves organized. In Germany, thousands of women from all political parties signed the “Berlin Declaration,” professional organizations launched their own “Pro Quota” movement, and journalists went public to maintain the pressure. The movement towards self-commitment gathered speed.

Similar actions were set up in other parts of Europe (and also worldwide!). To give you some examples: in Italy, two national legislators (a young woman from the left and an elderly lady from the right) presented the “Quote Rose” and got the legislation voted on in Parliament. At the international level, famous business schools united forces to create the “Global Board Ready Women” initiative, uniting on a platform the CV’s of 8,000 female MBA executives from 110 business schools around the world. Companies began to question their own business models and started initiatives to attract female talent.

The only place of stand-still was the Council of Ministers, where year after year, the legal proposal was blocked, again and again. Until the moment when the political game changed. The former German Labour Minister, Ursula von der Leyen (a fervent ally since 2012) became President of the EU Commission. A new German government coalition was established. France (also a strong ally since 2012) took over the Council Presidency for 6 months. The female alliance in the European Parliament had even been reinforced over the years.

We needed 10 years, from 2012 to 2022. But we finally did it. Commission, Parliament and Council agreed on a legal text. The new legislation will hopefully send out a strong message, break the glass ceiling, favour diversity and good governance, give talent a chance… and show young girls: “Yes, you have an opportunity to climb the career ladder. It all depends on your personal energy and engagement!”

About the author

Viviane Reding has served as an elected member of national and European Parliaments for 25 years. She was appointed as a member of the European Commission for three different mandates. She first served as European Commissioner for Education and Culture, then for Information Society and Media and finally, as First Vice-President of the Commission for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship.

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