In an emotionally charged issue that had been debated for months, Germany's parliament on Thursday rejected a law that would have mandated gender quotas on the supervisory boards of domestic corporations. The conservative governing coalition -- made up of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) -- succeeded, as expected, in blocking a push by the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the Green Party to create a quota law.
In a tense debate prior to what was ultimately a 320-277 vote, members of parties representing the governing coalition and the opposition openly sparred and accused each other of dishonesty.
The country's family minister, Kristina Schröder of the CDU -- who herself opposes legally binding quotas and has instead endorsed self-imposed rules -- accused the SPD and Greens of hypocrisy, arguing that neither party is doing much to ensure that more women are guaranteed leadership positions in places where they would actually have the power to implement such rules.
SPD party whip Frank-Walter Steinmeier threw accusations of hypocrisy back at the CDU. How, he asked, could Chancellor Merkel's party claim it wants to make a legal gender quota part of its election platform this year and then turn around and vote against such legislation in parliament?
Steinmeier was referring to the fact that the CDU's board had reached a compromise agreement on Monday under which it will state in its election platforms this year that the party supports a quota of a minimum of 30 percent for the share of women serving on every corporate supervisory board. However, it stipulated that such legislation would not enter into force until 2020 -- a date when Merkel is no longer likely to be in power.
The leaders intended the compromise to assuage members of parliament within the party, including Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who had been strong proponents of implementing the kind of quota that has proven successful in other parts of Europe and had considered casting their votes with the opposition.
In fact, the legislation rejected on Thursday had been amended by the Green Party at the last minute to reflect the CDU's compromise. "According to a consensus reached by the (Christian Democrats), a quota of 30 percent for the share of women (on boards) is planned," the motion then stated. What's more, after a stern warning from party leaders, even von der Leyen ultimately cast her vote in line with her party.
Not All Conservatives Think Alike
Despite the high symbolic power of having a female chancellor, Merkel herself has remained passive on this issue. On Thursday morning, however, Merkel, who is also the CDU's leader, got into the fray to defend herself against criticism resulting from her party's surprising shift. As a major political party, she told the mass-circulation Bild, the CDU has long been seeking to address the issue of getting more women into leadership positions, adding that the issue was an important one for many women in her party.
Merkel also noted that "issues like gender equality and family policy … are discussed with great passion in the CDU. And one learns that not all women think alike." Indeed, there are enough women within the conservative party who support binding quotas that a major split emerged within the CDU. In a year that will see national elections in September, Merkel wanted to reduce the potential for continuing conflict.
Still, the powerful economic wing of her party isn't happy with the compromise. Michael Fuchs, the party's spokesman on issue relating to small- and medium-sized businesses, the country's economic backbone, told public broadcaster ZDF that he didn't want to see the party "interfere with the rights of shareholders, meaning the rights of owners."
The original motion in the Bundestag called for a female quota to be introduced in two steps. It envisioned the creation of a minimum quota of 20 percent for supervisory boards starting in 2018. That figure would then increase to 40 percent in 2023. The Bundesrat, Germany's upper legislative chamber representing the federal states, approved similar legislation last year.
The European Commission in Brussels has also been seeking to implement a gender quota for non-executive boards across the 27-member bloc, a move that has long been opposed by Germany, which argues that such laws should be passed at the national level. A number of countries in Europe already have gender quotas for corporate boards, including France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Belgium and Norway. EU statistics show that the proportion of women board members doubled over the past two years in neighboring France to reach 25.1 percent compared to 12.3 percent in October 2010.