EU Sees Wide Gender Gap On Corporate Boards

A new study released by the World Economic Forum ranks northern European nations at the top when it comes to the size of their gender gap. But one area where the gap is huge is in the percentage of women on company boards; it's less than 15 percent EU-wide. Controversy over what should be done about that — and by whom — is more divisive than ever.

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Northern European nations rank at the top, in terms of women's opportunities for education, health care and general employment. But in the business world, they occupy less than 15 percent of corporate board seats - women do.

As Teri Schultz reports, the governing bodies of the European Union itself, seem to be in no hurry to address the gender gap in their own leadership.

TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: Nora Yahiaoui remembers when she smacked into the glass ceiling. At a job fair, a diplomat announced to her, and other Belgian University students - prospective recruits - that females need not apply. He explained why.

NORA YAHIAOUI: First of all, because you are going to be a mom and so you have to - (laughter) - you have to take care of your kids. Second of all, you will get married, and you will not find someone who will follow you around the world. And third of all, we can't handle stress.

SCHULTZ: That wasn't 1950. It was 2010. Europe may lead the world in quality of life, for women. But in equality, there's a long way to go. The question of whether mandatory management quotas would help - or not - is hot.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Has everybody voted?

SCHULTZ: The European Parliament recently weighed in on the issue. Europe's in the midst of the worst financial crisis in the history of the 27-nation bloc. And the European Central Bank is down one board member. Months ago, Parliament said it wanted to find a woman to balance the all-male board. So European governments came up with a candidate.

Yves Mersch has impressive credentials. He's the longest-serving bank governor in the eurozone. But he's not what the Parliament was asking for.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Rejected.

(CHEERS, APPLAUSE)

SCHULTZ: Parliamentarians pointed out there's no woman in any high-level, decision-making capacity at the ECB; and no other openings expected for six more years. French parliamentarian Sylvie Goulard expressed the legislature's indignation.

SYLVIE GOULARD: (Through translator) Can we afford to give half the population of Europe the impression that it has no voice; that its voice is not to be heard?

SCHULTZ: In his defense, Mersch pointed out that more than 40 percent of the ECB's staff is female.

Across the Europe Union, women make up just 13.7 percent of corporate boards. That improved slightly after EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding challenged companies to have 40 percent of their board seats occupied by women, by the end of this decade. Only a couple dozen companies voluntarily pledged to meet that goal, so Reding vowed to pass a law. A third of the 27 European commissioners are women. When Reding brought her proposal to the group, to make the goal a rule with quotas, less than a third of all commissioners supported it. And all of them were men.

SERAP ALTINISIK: Honestly, we were shocked.

SCHULTZ: Serap Altinisik, of the European Women's Lobby, says her members already considered Reding's proposal weak because it left compliance enforcement up to individual governments. Her group wants 50-50 gender representation, with serious sanctions for noncompliance. And they want women specifically on executive boards - not just supervisory ones, as Reding was calling for.

ALTINISIK: Nevertheless, we are supporting her because we say it's time that anything happens. We have too many qualified women who are already waiting, and really ready to have decision-making power.

SCHULTZ: Altinisik points out that numerous EU treaties promote gender equality as a human rights issue. Claire Godding disagrees with the quota approach. She spent decades in banking; and is now the diversity manager at the huge, French multinational bank BNP Paribas. She's proud that half of all recruits are now female, and is determined to improve the rate of women promotions above middle-management.

Godding believes that changing mindsets, not setting quotas, will improve the gender imbalance. She points to studies that show companies with more women leaders, perform better than those with few or none.

CLAIRE GODDING: We are not doing this for any kind of charity, or because it's good or because it's fair. We do it because it makes business sense.

SCHULTZ: Godding makes this case regularly, to her own company's executive committee. Of the 17 members, only two are female. Several EU governments - including Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain - already have quotas; some voluntary and others, mandatory. The German Parliament is debating such a policy now.

In the case of the open seat on the European Central Bank, eurozone governments can overrule Parliament's rejection of Mersch and install him - yet another man - on the board. But lawmakers are warning, that would not be politically wise.

For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz in Brussels.

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