The forty year itch – to quota or not?

The decision to postpone a vote on the implementation of controversial EU quota legislation has been largely welcomed on all sides. Proponents hope that a delay will allow them time to bolster their vote whilst opponents feel that a victory is in sight.

The proposition by EU justice commissioner, Viviane Reading, to accelerate the rise of women at board room level has prompted widespread debate. Her current suggestion is to create a minimum requisite of 40% female non-executives across all EU public listed companies by the year 2020. Ms Reading’s proposal is based on research showing that unless such quotas are enforced it could take over forty years for women to reach parity with their male counterparts. This is in spite of the advantages that gender equality has been shown to have on company performance and the pool of increasingly qualified female applicants.

A voluntary pledge, signed by swathes of companies eighteen months ago, has resulted in a lacklustre one percent increase in female representation. This has led many campaigners to feel that self regulation is simply not effective and that quotas may be a “necessary evil”. They look to the example set by Norway, where a law, similar to that proposed by Ms Reading, has been implemented since 2004 with great success.

It must be noted that many supporters of the law feel that the fundamental structural change created by shock to the system quotas will enable companies to gradually self-regulate effectively.

However, opposition to such a law, no matter its eventual intentions, is strong. Many visible female figures, including former Latvian vice-president Varia Vike-Freiberga, consider such positive discrimination to be “demeaning” in principle by suggesting that women are incapable of achieving top positions on their own merit. Some go further, suggesting that their positions among male colleagues would be undermined by suggestions of window dressing to meet EU requirements.

Resistance to the proposal is also present at national level. The UK, with its current anti-European internal political stance, is leading a nine-state block stating that such employment legislation is not inside the remit of the EU. Such governments, far from being against the proposal in principal, feel that measures can be taken in their own country where legislation can be tailored to business needs. A recent EC report, suggests, however, that far from supporting businesses, state-specific intervention could infringe upon many business’ ability to expand.

Whether quotas are implemented or not, women from both sides of the quota-fence feel there will still be a lot work to be done if the goal of work place equality is to be fulfilled.

Sorcha Foster (EYPUK)