Glass ceilings starting to crack across Europe

A recent study by Washington-based Corporate Women Directors International shows the impact of quotas on increasing the diversity of company boards in Europe.

France has already beaten the schedule set by the October 2010 quota law, which demands that women comprise 40 per cent of the boards of France’s largest 40 companies within six years.

The law set a halfway target: boards should be 20 per cent female at the three-year point. France has already beaten that, attaining 20.1 per cent, the report says. In 2004, only 7.2 per cent of French corporate board seats were held by women.

Irene Natividad, chairwoman of CWDI, says:

“Something is happening, and it’s driven by Europe. The momentum for more women on boards will change the face of the biggest companies in Europe, in the midst of the region’s ongoing financial crisis. They are ahead of the ball game.”

However, where quotas lead, cries of “tokenism” tend to follow. France, in particular, has seen a number of controversial board appointments. First, there was Bernadette Chirac, the 78-year old former French first lady, appointed to the board of luxury goods retailer LVMH.

Other members of the French first wives club include Nicole Dassault, the 80-year old wife of controlling shareholder, Serge Dassault, who sits on the board of Dassault Aviation; Florence Woerth, a supervisory board member of luxury goods company Hermès, and wife of Eric Woerth, previously France’s labour minister; Brigitte Longuet, non-executive director of broadcaster Canal Plus, and wife of Gérard Longuet, the French minister of defence; and Amélie Oudéa-Castera, a director of media group Lagardère, who is a former tennis professional and wife of Frédéric Oudéa, the chief executive of Société Générale, the bank.

The latest CWDI study on the status of women directors examines the Fortune Global 200, a ranking of the world’s largest companies by revenue.

The report says:

“Overall, the countries with quotas saw a higher percentage of women’s board appointments when compared to the average female representation among other companies in the Fortune listing.”

After Norway – which was the first country to institute compulsory quotas – Spain, France, the Netherlands, Iceland, Italy and Belgium have all introduced legal minimum quotas for women directors on public company boards. In June this year, Malaysia also introduced quota legislation.

The leader board is still topped by US companies, with women holding 20.8 per cent of board seats. However, the CWDI report warns that unless the US can improve its glacial rate of increasing diversity (3.3 per cent since 2004), it is likely to be overtaken by faster-moving European countries with the wind of statutory compulsion behind them.

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