September 5, 2012 / 5:53 PM / 7 years ago

EU plan for female board quotas faces opposition

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union justice commissioner’s proposal to make companies employ more female directors may face resistance from EU states led by Britain who prefer voluntary measures to encourage more women business leaders.

Under draft legislation, companies listed in EU member countries would face sanctions if they fail to reserve at least 40 percent of their non-executive board seats for women, a European Commission spokesman said on Wednesday.

Britain is trying to lead opposition to the proposal, preferring less coercive measures to boost women’s presence in business. “The UK isn’t in favour of targets and a number of other member states agree that more positive measures should be discussed,” a British government spokeswoman said.

The overall female presence at the top of major corporations remains low. As of January, just 3 percent of the presidents and chairmen of large firms in the EU were women. Women accounted for only 14 percent of the seats on the boards of large European companies, according to European Commission figures.

Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has said that putting more women on boards would benefit business by bringing in new talent.

“Fortunately, European laws on such matters are not taken in meetings by 10 men in dark suits behind closed doors, but in an open, democratic process in which the democratically elected European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers have an equal say,” Reding said in response to UK disapproval.

The 27 member states would determine the sanctions for failure to comply, under the proposal, which is expected to be published around October or November.

Former British trade minister Lord Davies published “Women on Boards” in 2011, a report recommending that the boards of the FTSE 350 list of Britain’s biggest companies aim for a minimum of 25 percent female representation by 2015.

This year, the companies exceeded this target and had an average of just over 26 percent. Moreover, in the FTSE 100, there were just 11 all-male boards, down from 21 in 2011.

Norway, which is not an EU member, is the most prominent example of the use of gender quotas. In 2006 it announced penalties for public companies with fewer than 40 percent women on their boards. Currently women occupy 42 percent of board positions in Norway.

In Latvia, Finland and Sweden, women take up about one-quarter of the seats while the figure for Germany is 16 percent.

But in southern Europe, women make up less than 10 percent of boards in Greece, Italy, Cyprus and Malta.

Despite higher female representation on boards in some countries, women have far less executive power then men throughout the continent. Norwegian men occupy 89 percent of the presidential seats at large companies, while 97 percent are taken by men in Spain and France.

Reporting by Madeline O'Leary; Editing by Sebastian Moffett and Mark Heinrich

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