The European debate about the necessity of gender quotas in the upper echelons of business reached a new milestone on Wednesday, but negotiations on the controversial issue are far from over.
After weeks of wrangling over the issue, the European Commission approved a draft law that would create a gender quota for non-executive directors of stock-listed companies across the European Union. If approved, the new regulations would stipulate that women occupy 40 percent of the seats on the non-executive boards of Europe's roughly 5,000 publicly traded companies by 2020. In instances where candidates' professional qualifications were the same, women would also be given preference, should they be under-represented in that company. Companies that do not adhere to the rules could be sanctioned.
The proposal is a watered-down version of one put forward by the quota's long-time champion, European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, who vowed not to give up after her first effort was blocked by the Commission in September.
But the proposal must still be approved by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, the powerful EU body that comprises the leaders of the 27 member states. This may prove difficult because a few countries, including Germany and the United Kingdom, are opposed to a legally binding gender quota.
Opponents Argue for National Regulation
Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert spoke out against approving the law after its announcement on Wednesday, a position that was emphasized once again on Thursday by one of the quota's biggest opponents in Germany, conservative Minister of Family and Women's Affairs Kristina Schröder, who favors a voluntary regulation she has dubbed the "flexi-quota."
"Europe shouldn't decide on things that member states can better regulate themselves," she told the daily Wiesbadener Kurier.
Reding responded to the resistance with an interview in the daily Die Welt, in which she stated that the draft law had addressed the concerns of Merkel's conservatives. "Anyone who reads the text will conclude this," she told the paper.
Indeed, high-level members of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) support Reding in her quest, including Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen and Saarland governor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the latter of whom told news agency DAPD that the quota placed "no excessive demand" on companies.
German commentators on Thursday also debated the issue, with many calling it a move in the right direction in the fight for gender equality. But there is still a long road ahead, they warn.
Center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"This is no doubt a compromise that will not satisfy those who advocate a gender quota. But it is still an important first step -- both for supporters and for women, and must be valued as such. It is a signpost that has been driven into the ground that will be difficult to circumvent. The quota for non-executive boards must now be followed by one for executive boards too. And when applying to management jobs, women must be reviewed more thoroughly for their suitability, because this is what it's about -- competency. Never before have there been so many well-educated women. The failure to use their knowledge is both economically unwise and discriminatory."
"The time is right for change. The quota will be necessary as long as opportunities remain unequal. Taking a voluntary approach to this is always the best of all options, but force is unavoidable when the voluntary method doesn't work."
The business daily Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"Finally, European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding has managed to convince the European Commission of her plan for a gender quota. But anyone who believes that the debate is now over is seriously wrong. It's only the beginning. Because not just the European Parliament must vote on measures that are stricter than those they would have formulated, but the Council of the European Union must also decide on the Commission's proposal. And the latter isn't looking good."
"Though predicting how the gender quota idea will play out on a European and national level is hard to predict, the Commission's decision is a signal to companies to prepare themselves for changes. That's what it comes down to in the end."
Conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"Yes, it is still there, the famous glass ceiling that denies women access to important posts. But ceilings are not destiny. It is people who decide on promotions and the environement and conditions under which changes occur within a profession. People? They're most often men. And they increasingly must justify their presence, which is one reason that no one can claim things aren't changing. But the promotion of women to positions where they are the deputy of deputies (who are men, of course) is smoke and mirrors, as are the cost-free claims of the elderly business leaders who claim they are now in favor of a gender quota. Anyone who calls for a quota should resign immediately for reasons of credibility, because everyone is replaceable, and who would deny that there are plenty of qualified women available."
"Still, the EU is sawing off its own branches, so to speak. Reding's wish for the European Commission to be yet more political, if that is possible, opposes the wishes of the individual member states who support the Union. The mantra 'more Europe,' which has been accepted amid the debt crisis, will not be parroted in every area. On the contrary, the general competence of the EU, often supported by the member states, is actually considered a cause of Europe's crisis of confidence. When moral interventionism is piled on top of all that, it's time for the Union to reflect upon its condition."
Left-leaning daily Die Tageszeiting writes:
"The current proposal is no triumph, neither for Commissioner Reding, nor for the equal status of women in leadership positions. Reding was forced to trim down her plan. But it remains a first step toward a binding quota in all 27 member states. In Germany especially, this wouldn't be conceivable without the EU."
"Now Reding must convince the member states. The commissioner doesn't want to say publicly which countries in particular are putting up the most resistance, but it is clear that the German government is intervening against the quota in Brussels. Now it will come down to how the European Parliament positions itself. It won't be easy, and negotiations could drag out for months. The quota won't be introduced until 2016 at the earliest."
Left-leaning daily Berliner Zeitung writes:
"The quota isn't a strong weapon yet but it is still a strong signal. Assuming that the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers approve the Commission's proposal, Reding's strategy will still have been successful. She has used the fight for the quota to gather her troops. Politicians, lawyers and entrepreneurs have networked across national borders to push her European quota. It will be hard to resist this pressure over time."