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Uphill Battle

tt/kjb/dpa/afpMarch 8, 2009

While women are increasingly reaching key positions in the world of European politics and business, they are still massively underrepresented and facing an uphill battle for recognition and equal pay.

Silhouette of a woman in front of an EU flag
Many European women are still discriminated against

"Still today in governments and parliaments, less than a quarter of members are women," said Margot Wallstrom, the Swedish vice-president of the European Commission ahead of International Women's Day on Sunday, March 8.

"There is no lack of female candidates," she added. "The reality is men tend to choose men."

"One half of the population is seriously underrepresented" and, this being the case, "the policy agenda will be set by men," Wallstrom said during an EU parliamentary debate this week.

Deep-seated prejudices

Angela Merkel with other G8 heads of government
Very few women make it to the topImage: AP

Despite a rise in the number of women candidates, male politicians stand a better chance of getting elected due to deep-seated prejudices and habits, a study by the European Commission found.

According to data extrapolated from across the continent, an election with an equal number of male and female candidates would still result in a parliament with just 39 percent women representatives.

In other words, it would take 63 percent women candidates to achieve gender equilibrium in the final assembly.

"It's wrong to blame women voters," said Drude Dahlerup, a professor in the department of political science at Stockholm University. "The main problem is that male voters vote for male candidates."

The Iron Lady was no feminist

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher didn't do much for women's rights in the UKImage: AP

Having a female prime minister, however, is no guarantee for a country that its policies will be women-friendly.

"Margaret Thatcher broke through the glass ceiling in politics," said Patricia Hewitt, a minister under Britain's former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. "But it is a tragedy that, having become the UK's first women prime minister, she did so much to undermine the position of women in society."

According to the European Commission study, none of the 27 EU member states' lower chambers of parliament currently has half or more women deputies. The closest is Sweden with 46 percent women, followed by the Netherlands and Finland with 41 percent.

Most chambers have less than a quarter of their seats occupied by women, with Hungary (10.9 percent), Romania (10.1 percent) and Malta (8.7 percent) bringing up the rear.

The EU parliament comes in above average in the female representation stakes with 31.2 percent women MPs.

Women in the workplace

A woman smiling in an office
More women in the workplace could be good for businessImage: picture-alliance/chromorange

Officials say the presence of more women in the workplace could help lift the European Union out of recession and mitigate the impact of future financial crises.

"Discrimination produces inefficiency," said European Equals Opportunity Commissioner Vladimir Spidla earlier this week at the launch of a European campaign against the ongoing gender pay gap. "And it is precisely during times of crisis that we should be most active."

Spidla quoted a series of studies showing that a more active participation by women in the workplace helps make businesses more efficient and avoid riskier investments.

One such study of 15,000 small- and medium-sized businesses in Finland found that those run by women tend to be 10 percent more efficient than those run by men.

Long-term perspective

Another recent French study showed that companies with more women on their board of directors tended to perform better on the stock exchange.

A mural depicting a group of women holding hands
Studies have shown that women prefer to focus on long-term goalsImage: UN

The study's author, Professor Michel Ferrary of the Ceram Business School in France, wrote in Monday's Financial Times that research has shown women to be more risk-averse and to focus more on the long-term perspective.

According to EU figures, only 30 percent of Europe's managers are women. But this percentage drops to just 10 percent for large corporations.

Worst still, women are paid on average 14.7 percent less than their male counterparts, even when doing exactly the same job.

And while the reasons for such a gender gap are numerous, it represents an intolerable source of discrimination on both moral and economic grounds, Spidla said.