Shattering the Glass Ceiling in European Business: A Matter of Economic Recovery

On February 28th, Jerzy Buzek, the president of the European Parliament and Viviane Reding, the vice president of the European Commission and E.U. justice commissioner co-wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, urging the need to close the gender gap in European businesses.

Among European nations, often upheld as the leaders of liberal policies and social equality, the statistics are shocking: only one-in-10 board members in the European Union is a women, and only 3 percent of chief executives are female. According to Reding and Buzek, progress in achieving gender equality in Europe has been incredibly slow: “The share of female board members in the European Union has increased by half a percentage point a year for the last seven years. At this rate, it will take another 50 years to reach a gender balance on company boards.”

As troubling as those numbers are from the perspective of gender equality, Buzek and Reding argue women are the key to ending the economic crisis. In a period of global recession, “human capital is essential to restore Europe’s competitiveness at a global level.”

Citing a study by Goldman Sachs that concluded that closing the gender gap could boost the euro zone’s gross domestic product by up to 13 percent and analysis by the consulting firm McKinsey that found the operational profit of companies with the most women on boards was 56 percent higher than those with men only at the top level, Reding and Buzek argue Europe cannot afford to “leave the talents of half the population behind.”

But the question of how to close this gender gap, and close it rapidly, remains.

Buzek and Reding propose two options. First, to allow the businesses world to work out the proposals for (closely monitored) self-regulatory initiatives to bring women into positions of decision-making. If there is “no credible progress,” Buzek and Reding argue legally binding quota’s, like those introduced effectively in Norway, will be necessary.

In the face of this increasing pressure, one hopes the glass ceiling over the world of European business will begin to crack.

How does the American business sector compare? In New York, the thriving scene of social-entrepreneurial start-ups seems to be led by more equal numbers of men and women. But what of larger corporations? In light of the mortgage-crisis, it is tempting to believe Buzek and Reding’s argument works all too perfectly with the economic situation on this side of the Atlantic.

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