Vice-President of the European Commission, EU Justice Commissioner
A historic day for gender equality
Press Conference /Brussels
14 November 2012
Today is a historic day for gender equality! After decades of empty promises and failed attempts at self-regulation, we still have an effective 85% male quota on the supervisory boards of Europe's largest companies – while women only make up 15%.
This is a shocking waste of talent when you think that 60% of university graduates today are female.
And this is why the Commission is taking action. Today we are proposing legislation to smash the glass ceiling that keeps women out of top jobs; legislation to attain 40% of women in non-executive board-member positions in publicly listed companies.
And as you see, this is gender equality in action because I am here with my male colleague Olli Rehn, Vice-President of the Commission in charge of the economy, to present to you the proposal that the College of Commissioners has just jointly adopted to improve the gender balance on company boards of listed companies.
The gender balance here today reflects what we want to achieve with today's proposal and it reflects very well the logic behind our proposal: gender equality is about men and women – we need both genders on board to make a difference. The fact that the proposal was co-signed by all the Commissioners with an economic portfolio (Tajani, Rehn, Almunia, Barnier, Andor) reflects also the economic importance of our proposal and its importance for improving our competitiveness.
What we are putting on the table today has strongly divided minds over the past months. But today we stand before you united, with a solution to a societal challenge, and one that affects us all.
It is also a joint answer to the strong calls of the European Parliament and of many national Parliaments – the directly elected representatives of the people – for EU legal action to bring about gender equality in corporate boardrooms.
I have followed the vivid debate that has accompanied the Commission's proposal before the text had even seen the light of day and is still going strong in the press today.
Now we actually have a text on the table – a law that will make sure we have 40% of women on supervisory boards by 2020. This is a huge achievement in itself. We have defied all the doomsday expectations.
So now is the time to look beyond ideological discussions and read the text.
What have we proposed today?
The Commission is proposing a legally binding Directive.
We are introducing a 40% rule. At the heart of our proposal is Article 4(3). It says that if a company does not have 40% of women on its supervisory board, priority shall be given to the qualified women. This is the quota.
Let's be clear: nobody will get a job on the board just because they are a woman. But no woman will be denied a job because of their gender either. The job will always go to the best candidate.
The objective is clear: 40% women on supervisory boards of publicly listed companies in Europe by 2020. State-owned companies will have less time, until 2018, because they should lead by example.
The proposal also includes, a "flexi quota" for the executive boards. This is an obligation for listed companies to set themselves individual, self-regulatory targets for executive board directors. Companies will have to report annually on the progress made or not made.
Of course, a traffic warden who cannot write tickets is not a very effective one – all bark and no bite. Our proposal has teeth: Member States have to lay down effective and dissuasive sanctions for companies in breach of the Directive. If a company has less than 40% of the underrepresented sex, it will have to ensure that posts are filled with equally qualified women, instead of men. And if they do not do so, they will face sanctions. The sanctions must be effective and dissuasive. Examples are administrative fines or the annulment of the appointment of non-executive directors made contrary to the Directive.
I know there are a lot of nay-sayers who think such a law will not work because there simply are not enough qualified women to fill all these posts. I disagree. On 12 December the major European business schools will publish a searchable database of 7 500 'board ready' women.
All of these women fulfil stringent criteria for corporate governance as defined by publicly-listed companies, are well qualified and ready to go on the boards as of tomorrow. The pool of talent is there – but companies are not making use of it. Now we will make sure they will.
Making use of female talent can even improve companies' performance. After all, a number of studies from various countries suggest that companies with a higher share of women at top levels deliver stronger organisational and financial performance. Women make 70% of all purchasing decisions – and we're not talking dishwashers here.
Having a more diverse and collective mind-set can lead to more balanced decisions – which is, by the way, why in my team I have a 50-50 gender balance. In the Commission, we practice what we preach. On President Barroso's, initiative, the Commission significantly strengthened the presence of female Commissioners – up to 1/3 – the best gender balance in any Commission to date (up from 5.6% in 1994/1995).
And we have set ourselves targets for senior and management levels as well - which we are already exceeding. You'll find no skeletons in our closet.
And finally, having more women in the workforce will help achieve the EU's goal of raising the employment rate for adults to 75% – a target to which all EU Member States have signed up to in the context of the Europe 2020 strategy, the EU's economic growth strategy.
Let me say one more thing before I pass the floor to Olli. The adoption of today's proposals is, as you know, a hard-fought for achievement and I would like to thank all those who have fought tirelessly for this cause and helped me get this proposal on the table, notably the Members of the European Parliament from all the major political parties who joined forces to call for.
Today's proposal is the crowning of those efforts and another leap forward in 50 years of EU action to promote gender equality.
To conclude I would like to quote the President in today's College debate: 'This proposal is a real breakthrough initiative.' Very true.