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Two of the few who made it to the top against the oddsImage: dpa - Bildfunk

EU Takes Slow Road to Gender Equity

Jennifer Abramsohn
November 8, 2005

An ongoing EU push for gender equality aims to help women improve their lot in European society. But while quotas have helped the fairer sex make strides in politics, the boardroom remains a boys' room.


Angela Merkel is likely to soon assume Germany's highest political office, the chancellorship, and the country's political ranks are bursting with strong, outspoken women. Yet there are very few high-level female managers in German business -- just seven of the 525 board positions in Germany's 100 top firms are held by women.

Kinderbetreuung in Deutschland Kinder-PISA
Kids need outside care when moms go to workImage: dpa

A two-day informal gender-equality conference put on by the EU's Women and Equality Unit and currently underway in Britain is taking a closer look at this imbalance. Participants from various EU countries will be answering the question "What works for women?" and examining strategies on childcare, education and skill building aimed at helping more European women climb the corporate ladder.

Women have had little success reaching the upper echelons of business in Europe. According to 1999 data from the International Labor Organization, 5.1 percent of executive management positions in the top 500 US companies were held by women, whereas in France this number was 4.7 percent, compared to 3.6 percent in Britain and just 3 percent in Germany.

Karin Dorrepaal
Dorrepaal landed the big one: a seat on Schering's boardImage: Schering

Karin Dorrepaal recently made waves when she was elected to the board of German pharmaceutical firm Schering, the first woman on the board of one of Germany's 30 biggest companies. No flood of corporate female appointments has followed, however, and none is expected.

Pay discrepancies lay the matter out in black and white: in Germany, women earn an average of 16 percent less than men, with the difference increasing toward the top of the career ladder. (In the old western states, the discrepancy is even greater -- in 2002, a woman doing the same job as a man earned as much as 25 percent less.)

These figures may or may not be surprising, but they speak volumes about Germany's cultural attitudes towards women -- and the need for a policy broadside to take them on. And the debate is more than ideological, according to Danita Hübner, European Commissioner for Regional Policy.

Bildergalerie EU-Kommissare Danuta Hübner Regional Policy Polish
EU Commissioner Hübner wants to see mainstreaming take holdImage: EU

"Gender discrimination, both overt and latent, equates to a great waste of human resources," said Hübner, addressing a gender-mainstreaming group in March. "Eliminating discrimination will lead to gains in both employment and productivity."

For EU officials, the long-term answer to such problems is "gender mainstreaming," which means the processes put in place to ensure gender equality is taken into account in all aspects of policy planning. EU members agreed to implement gender mainstreaming when they signed the 1999 Amsterdam Treaty. And they reiterated their commitment to "promote gender equality and empower women" as part of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000.

Women need solidarityImage: UN

Sweeping societal changes don't take place overnight, however, and the gender-mainstreaming debate seems to take place mostly in rarified policy circles. So far, the EU has created a European Institute for Gender Equality to gather international data on gender equality; it also funds gender-equity projects and initiatives on the international, state and local levels.

One of these initiatives is the Gender Institute of Saxony-Anhalt, or GISA, the first "competency center" on gender issues in Germany.

Among other things, the center trains local politicians in gender issues, collects and publishes data that can be used in policy-making, and has implemented a process to rigorously check national laws for their potential effects on gender relations.

Wahl Fernsehduell Merkel Schröder Angela Merkel
Merkel is one of many women in politics -- thanks to quotasImage: AP

Meanwhile, one area where German women have, indeed, gained power is politics. Merkel is just the crest of a wave of women public servants surging onto the local and national scene. Yet this change did not come as the result of an outpouring of feminist sentiment -- or from the implementation of bureaucratic programs at the EU level.

Simply put, it can be traced directly to a quota system for candidates pioneered by the Green party in the 1980s and later emulated by the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats.

Could we just put quotas on jobs, making faster inroads into inequality than the reams of project papers currently put out in Brussels? The director of GISA, Thomas Claus, warns against such blanket actions.

"I'm not against quotas, but you can't apply them to all areas of business," he said. "For example, if you did that in the construction industry -- typically dominated by men -- that would be nonsense."

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