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Europe

Women's Lobby Starts Campaign to Tackle EU Gender Inequality

A group of leading female personalities launched a campaign in Brussels this week in a bid to boost the number of women in European politics given that they still remain grossly under-represented.

A woman talks on her mobile phone

The initiative hopes to put more women in the corridors of power in Brussels

Slightly fewer than one third of the European Parliament's (EP) 785 seats are occupied by women, while only nine of the EU's 27 commissioners are female.

Now a group of leading women politicians has launched a campaign in Brussels aimed at bridging this gender gap when the composition of the EP and the European Commission comes up for renewal next year.

EU Commission vice president Margot Wallstrom

Wallstrom is among the few leading women politicians in the EU

"A representative democracy without gender equality is a contradiction in terms," said Margot Wallstrom, a Swede who acts as one of the commission's five vice-presidents. "Women and men need to be equally represented in European politics, in order to have a say on decisions that affect their lives," she added.

Under Barroso, narrowing of gender gap

Some 150 personalities have already expressed their support for the European Women's Lobby (EWL) campaign. Among them are incumbent and former prime ministers, heads of state and Nobel Prize winners.

The "50/50 Campaign for Democracy" wants binding measures aimed at having more women in the corridors of power in Brussels. It is also urging ordinary women around the continent to play a more active role in politics.

The EU executive currently has no plans to introduce quotas for women. But officials note that under President Jose Manuel Barroso, "the gender balance in the commission has developed in an unprecedentedly favorable way."

Officials point out that the previous EU cabinet, headed by Italy's Romano Prodi, had only a handful of women.

"Never before have there been so many female members of the commission," said Barroso's spokesman, Johannes Laitenberger.

While insisting that merit remains the fundamental criterion for choosing civil servants, officials also point out that women have accounted for 35 per cent of new recruits to the EU's senior management posts this year, far exceeding the 25-per-cent target rate set by Barroso in 2007.

EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso

The Commission under Barroso has made strides towards hiring more women

Quotas for women?

But the EWL says the improvements are not enough.

The underlying problem is that the responsibility for electing MEPs or designating commissioners ultimately lies with individual member states.

And women's participation in politics differs widely across the continent. For instance, while nearly 60 per cent of Swedish MEPs are women, only 13 per cent of their Polish colleagues are female.

Given the difficulties of agreeing on a quota for the EU Commission, Wallstrom has proposed that each member state should in future name two candidates of different sexes for the post. It would then be up to the president to select the best candidates while aiming for the right overall gender balance.

"This is not an unrealistic idea, and it would be quite easy to implement," says Cecile Greboval, EWL's policy director.

At the campaign's launch in Brussels this week, well-known female politicians from Spain, Britain, Sweden and Italy talked about how best to bridge the gender divide, with the merits of quotas taking up much of the discussion.

Bibiana Aido, Spain's minister for equality, said the introduction of quotas in her country had generated "a favorable climate for parity," with Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero now leading the country's first ever cabinet with an equal number of male and female ministers.

Wallstrom said that despite initial controversies, a Norwegian law forcing companies to make sure that at least 40 per cent of their board members are female is now being hailed as "a huge success."

Some say quotas are counterproductive

Former Italian EU commissioner Emma Bonino talking with Development Commissioner Louis Michel

Former commissioner Emma Bonino is no fan of quotas

But not all panelists agreed that quotas are the way forward.

Emma Bonino, a former commissioner who now acts as the deputy head of the Italian Senate, said the introduction of quotas in her country had merely resulted in male politicians placing their girlfriends in positions of power.

"I am one of the last in Europe to be against quotas. I am not a Machiavellian: I don't believe that the ends justify the means," she said.

The debate appeared to confirm the view of those who argue that one of the main obstacles to gender equality has been women's inability to agree on a common strategy.

Others say that women have not been sufficiently interested, or vocal, in seeking power.

"Sometimes we do not dare say that we want power. But if we start demanding it, we might get it," Bonino said.

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