Women on European Boards

May 29, 2014

Men rule the boardrooms of Europe, holding over 82% of board positions in large, publicly listed companies. There are only five EU countries—Finland, France, Latvia, Sweden and the Netherlands—where women account for at least a quarter of board members, and fewer than 3% of Europe's largest companies have a woman CEO.

Despite the fact that European women are actually better educated than their male colleagues, women’s representation in the top executive positions has barely changed over the last two years.

The issue of women on boards has, however, gained significant prominence in Europe in recent years, and countries and companies are pursuing a range of initiatives across the region to increase women’s representation into senior leadership. Most forward-looking business leaders also appear to have accepted the business case of a balanced boardroom: "It’s not simply about equal opportunity,” UK Prime Minister David Cameron said. “It’s about effectiveness…Companies and countries run better if you have men and women working together at the top.”

In the UK, the government has set a voluntary goal of 25% representation of women in the boardrooms of FTSE 100 companies by 2015. From 2011 to 2014, women’s representation on FTSE 100 boards grew from 12.5% to 20.4%. Only around 50 new female board appointments are now needed to reach this target. And Lloyds Banking Group, in the UK, recently became the first FTSE 100 company to pledge that 40% of its top executive jobs will go to women by the end of the decade.

The European Parliament, meanwhile, disappointed with the slow progress, voted last year to back the European Commission’s proposed directive setting a minimum objective of having 40% women holding Europe's non-executive board-member positions in listed companies by 2020 (2018 for listed public undertakings). This directive is currently under discussion by the Council of the EU. 

Quota legislation for publicly traded companies is already in place in several EU countries, including France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands, along with Germany, the latest EU nation to announce plans to require listed German companies to fill 30% of non-executive board seats with women starting in 2016. But such hard limits have run into fierce resistance from other countries across the EU, including Britain and Sweden.

Quotas are one way to effect change. But other means can also achieve the same result, including voluntary target setting, public disclosure obligations, or adherence to a public charter. But regardless of the approach, it will fail miserably without a change in attitude and culture.

As Europe edges out of recession and, at the same time, momentum toward gender-balanced leadership initiatives builds, it’s clear that Europe is on the brink of major change. All we need now is to transform shifting mindsets into concrete actions.

The advancement of women isn’t hard—it just requires intentional focus and leadership. And it can literally pay off.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.