STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Lawmakers across Europe are considering rules that would force companies to appoint more women as board directors. Amid the debate in his country, a German bank executive joked that putting women on his all-male executive board would make it, quote, "more colorful and prettier too." Not everybody laughed. But the comment made us wonder why some countries have an easier time than others getting more women into top corporate positions.

And we're going to talk about this with Adrian Wooldridge. He writes about management trends for The Economist magazine. He's on the line from London.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. ADRIAN WOOLDRIDGE (The Economist): Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: What's driving Europeans to debate this now?

Mr. WOOLDRIDGE: I think there is a sense in a lot of parliaments that companies should be more representative of the population and that many parliaments have introduced all-women shortlists or have introduced quotas for women. So you see some parliaments where you're beginning to get up to 50 percent representation of women in parliament. So these politicians sit back and think, why is the corporate boardroom so different?

INSKEEP: And there are some quotas or what could be described as quotas. Norway has a law that requires 40 percent of board directors be women. Spain has passed a similar law. France is phasing in a law. Is this a good idea?

Mr. WOOLDRIDGE: I don't think personally that it's a good idea, because I don't think it's the business of governments to micromanage companies to tell them who exactly they should have on their boards. And I think it's something that should be done by the market, by the shareholders. It's something that if it is the case that it's lowering company performance, then companies will adjust to that.

INSKEEP: Suppose it's left to the market, as you suggest.

Mr. WOOLDRIDGE: Mm-hmm.

INSKEEP: Can you imagine a circumstance in which women would ever become 50 percent of corporate boards, or even, let's say, 40 percent, 35 percent? That would be substantial change from where Europe is now and where America is now.

Mr. WOOLDRIDGE: We now have about 12 percent. The number has been growing, but slowly. I think that if you want to kick-start this process, if you want to reach 50, 40 percent, then the only way probably to do it is through quotas. I don't think it's a good idea but I think that would be the only way to reach those numbers. Because I think the fundamental problem here is that being a very high-powered business executive these days is exceptionally demanding on people's time, particularly as you have multinational companies with very far-flung operations. It has huge demands, and you do get a very high dropout rate of women in their 30s.

INSKEEP: Is it possible that if you did have a quota at the top, if you forced that upon businesses, it might cause them to change some of their policies regarding more junior women employees - women who may go away for while to have kids, for example change some of their policies so it's easier for women to advance and have full careers?

Mr. WOOLDRIDGE: I think there are two strong arguments for quotas. One is that there is a consumer market out there which women understand better than men. The second is that women are more sensitive to the needs of people who are trying to combine working with raising a family, and they will do more to help women to bridge this very difficult gulf.

I think there's certainly some merit in that argument. But I do think that there is a real problem with re-recruiting or bringing women back into the workforce once they have raised their children, they have more time to devote to their careers or bring in men if they've chosen to raise the children. And I think that definitely having more women in decision-making positions might make companies think more seriously about that sort of problem.

INSKEEP: Adrian Wooldridge writes for The Economist magazine. His column is called Schumpeter.

Thanks very much.

Mr. WOOLDRIDGE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And you can see how women are represented in the corporate boardrooms of various countries by going to npr.org.

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