How Europe Would Benefit From Enforcing Gender Quotas For Corporate Boards

On Monday, the Christian Science Monitor ran a report on growing calls among European leadership for gender quotas on corporate boards. It all began last year, when European Union Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding tried to pass an initiative to require gender quotas on the boards of European corporations. The measure garnered support from the European Commission, but was ultimately vetoed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. A few months later, first-ever female International Monetary Fund president Christine Lagarde voiced her support for quotas. And now, Lithuania has promised to put quotas at the top of the agenda when they preside over the European Union this month.

Last year’s proposal from Commissioner Reding calls for publicly-traded companies in the EU with over 250 employees to have women make up 40 percent of board members by 2020. It is projected to impact a total of 5,000 companies across the continent.

The idea of quotas is sometimes met with criticism, even from feminists, often for the same reason people oppose affirmative action: Women will be suspected as “quota” candidates instead of qualified participants, and their involvement will be trivialized instead of lauded.

Of course, that argument ignores the persistent gender biases that women have to overcome, especially when they strike out unaccompanied into high corporate ranks. It also ignores the ample evidence that mandatory gender quotas work. Take, for example, a 2012 study from the Inter-Parliamentary Union on quotas in elected offices. The study found that “Nine out of the top 10 countries which witnessed the highest growth in the number of women [members of parlaiment] in their lower house of parliament had used quotas. Conversely, seven out of the nine lower houses of parliament that witnessed an actual decrease in women MPs had not used any quotas:”

All in all, electoral quotas were used in 22 of the 48 countries holding elections last year. Where quotas had been legislated, women took 24 per cent of parliamentary seats; with voluntary quotas, they gained 22 per cent. Where no quotas were used, women took just 12 per cent of seats, well below the global average.

The effectiveness of quotas proves true across fields; Norway has already piloted the 40 percent quota for corporate boards that the EU is considering. There, not only are women occupying 35 percent of non-executive board director positions, but the number of women in senior management roles grew from 15 to 18 percent.


But gender parity isn’t just a concern within itself; it’s also a benefit to the companies and governments that achieve it. In governments, where women achieve gender parity, they influence policy to better serve the needs of women and more vulnerable citizens. And just last week, Reuters released a study that found corporations with more gender-diverse boards actually outperform their heavily-male peer companies.