EU Quotas on Women in Leadership: Top-Down Solutions Never Work

Written by | Wednesday, March 25th, 2015
Ms. Katarina Kobylinski

An important element of the European gender policy is ensuring that women are well-represented in leadership positions, including companies’ boards. The smartest way to achieve this, according to the European Union, is to introduce quotas on the representation of women in leadership. The quota system naturally applies to the leadership positions within in EU institutions as well, which is also one of the reasons why Federica Mogherini was appointed to the position of the European chief of diplomacy. The big trio of the EU leadership could not have been without a female and thus Mrs Mogherini was given the job even though many argued that she might not be the best candidate for the role, which would involve a lot of dealings with Russia.

Being a woman myself, I would not like to be promoted just because someone needs to fill their quotas. As anyone, I suppose, I would like to be appointed to a leadership position for the skills, qualities and experience than I can offer to the prospective employer. It is true that the quota system for women in leadership positions has been legislatively stalled for a while, but the very fact that Brussels thinks that this policy will help women lean in is worrying. The underlying problem behind the small number of women in leadership positions is often caused by the inflexibility of the European labour market and the mismatch between the current welfare policy in many EU countries and the true needs of women (actually parents).

Unlike in the United States and in many other countries, European women and men mostly have access to some form of financial support during motherhood and parenthood. In Central Europe, parents (mostly women in reality) can stay at home taking care of their children until they are three years old and still be eligible for some type of allowance. Yet, despite the financial support, many women decide to return to the labour market much sooner than three years. Just imagine, staying off the market for three years means basically losing the contact with the rapidly developing economy for relatively long time given the current speed of change.

However, despite the willingness to work, most parents in many European capitals face a tremendous difficulty in finding a day care for their children. In Central Europe, for instance, finding a place in state-funded pre-schools is extremely difficult because the number of places is very limited. As private pre-schools are much more expensive and their quality is often very comparable to state pre-schools, women (mostly) tend to prolong their time off the labour market. Moreover, European market is fairly inflexible in accommodating any special needs. 20- or 30-hour working weeks are still very rare and luxuries such as home office or flexitime are not commonplace either.

As a result, in 2012 only 62.4 percent of European women were employed, with big variations across Member States, but when the employment is measured in full time equivalent, the picture is even worse. Only 53.5 percent of the total female workforce was employed in 2012. The message is rather clear. Despite the existence of welfare state – namely financial support for parents – a substantial gender gap exists and lingers around Europe. It is no wonder then that there are too few women in leadership positions – there are simply too few women in workforce in general.

I do not personally believe in the system of quotas. I, as many experts, do not believe in top-down approaches. I believe in simple solutions that make everyday life easier and that ultimately lead to big things. Perhaps, we should increase the number of pre-schools or open more crèches, support family-friendly policies in the work place, financially help the employers who try to create equal opportunities. None of these solutions by itself is good enough, but there should still be space for experimentation, debate and mainly willingness to help women lead.

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