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Would Europe work (better) with more female leadership?

stop.jpgThe European companies with the greatest number of women in leadership positions show above average returns, as evidenced by Ericsson or Nokia. So why is the sex ratio so disproportionate in positions of responsibility in the political and business fields? Would the European Union work better with more female leadership?

(From Madrid) SOMETHING IS ROTTEN IN THE STATE OF DENMARK. This famous quotation from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is now used when something that should work, quite simply, does not.

Certainly, something is not working like it should in the EU. There is open talk of an institutional crisis. Institutional crisis? It’s more like a credibility and trust crisis; European citizens smell something bad but, in spite of this, have not stopped believing in the European project. European institutions seem to lead a separate life from that of their citizens, and speak a language that the people do not understand.

Almost everyone agrees that Ireland’s recent rejection of the substitute European Constitution –the original was itself rejected by France and Holland– reflects this lack of confidence in the project, in the 27 countries of Europe, no matter how united in their diversity they might promote themselves as being. Others add that this lack of confidence stems from poor communication with the public opinion. If there were more openness and if more informative campaigns accessible to the average Joe were carried out –in short, if that opaque image were polished up and made to shine– a solution could be found to the problem, or at the very least the hole in the public’s confidence could be patched up. There has also been no shortage of cries that, deep down, the citizens care about the Union itself about as much as they care about Saturn’s moons: not very much at all.

Other more daring hypotheses have been circulating, albeit with fewer proponents and less weight and significance… Is it possible that all of the above are in actuality symptoms of a sickness that is so chronic that it is not even recognized as such? Could it be that the European Union project, described on more than one occasion as a feminine project due to the strength, at least on paper, of its democratic principles and solidarity, lacks that very female leadership?

SIFTING THROUGH THE FACTS AND THE STEREOTYPES

This analysis is not intended to turn into a feminist manifesto, and certainly not into a chauvinist one. Yet evidently, men and women are not equal. “Women hold only 3 percent of the presidencies of the most important European companies listed on the domestic stock exchanges” These differences have given rise to talk of styles of power, with the masculine style being based upon an hierarchy and confrontation, as much as the feminine style finds its strength in conciliation and the absence of an hierarchy. Thanks to their communication and conflict management skills, women have in fact carved out their own little niche in this area via the formation and management of work teams. However, reality shows that these women’s skills remain largely untapped. Reasons include social and cultural norms, which are not easily alterable, but also economic and political issues, which are more malleable and can even influence the social and cultural norms themselves. And of course, true eagerness to see change is also key.

According to a recent European Commission publication [1], despite the fact that women hold 59 percent of the Union’s bachelor degrees, they hold only 3 percent of the presidencies of the most important European companies listed on the domestic stock exchanges. “European companies with the highest proportion of women in leadership positions show above average economic returns” What’s more, women in the EU do not have the same economic incentives to set their own hours and work at the pace required to reach the top. Not only do they earn less –considerably less– than men (who receive 15 percent more pay according to the EU average), but there are also fewer women who earn a high wage: 44 percent of European men that work full time have a high salary, while only 20 percent of their female colleagues can say the same.

According to the German office of the consulting firm McKinsey and Company [2], European companies with the highest proportion of women in leadership positions show above average economic returns. They cite the case of the Scandinavian peninsula, which is characterized by extraordinary gender equality and can boast of their leadership in the hi-tech field thanks to companies like Ericsson and Nokia.

Why then, is the sex ratio so disproportionate in positions of responsibility in both the political and business sectors?

WOMEN VS. MEN

During the first quarter of this year, the European Commission published its report, Women and men in decision-making 2007 – analysis of the situation and trends [3]. In it, they outline the progress of women in positions of responsibility in the economic, political, and civil service areas within the European Union, and provide the relevant figures. A summary of the statistics could be that European women remain on the sidelines when it comes to senior positions in both the political and business arenas.

“The respective central banks of the 27 countries of the EU, as well as the European Central Bank itself, are headed by men” The presence of women in national parliaments has risen by about 50 percent in the last decade, from 16 to 24 percent. Yet this is still far from the critical mass of 30 percent, the minimum proportion required for women to be able to exercise significant influence in politics. The European Parliament is above this minimum level, but just barely: 31 percent of its members are women. On the national level, only eight EU countries, including Spain, exceed the critical mass percentage, and male ministers outnumber their female counterparts three to one (76 percent men versus 24 percent women).

The numbers are no more equitable in the economic arena: the respective central banks of the 27 countries of the EU, as well as the European Central Bank itself, are headed by men. Despite the fact that women represent 44 percent of all European workers, they occupy only 32 percent of all command posts. This inequity is even greater in large companies, of which 90 percent of the leading advisors are men.

Regardless of how much emphasis they might put on the promotion of women, European institutions are no better in this regard: only 20 percent of the seats in the hierarchy’s two highest levels are occupied by women (however, there has been progress in this aspect because in 1999 the figure had fallen to 14 percent). In similar hierarchical categories in the EU’s central governments, women represent 33 percent.

These are but a few statistics, but they are powerful enough to assert that it is obvious that much remains to be done.

ANALYZING THE EU PROJECT

A few weeks ago, an article in The Economist [4] addressed this very question: Why does the EU have so few women in positions of responsibility? The article begins by mentioning Margot Wallström, vice president of the European Commission and one of those people for whom the EU, at its core, is a feminine project, in agreement with its foundational principles and supportive values. In her view, the problem is that men elect men to positions of responsibility, and she adds that this practice is detrimental to the EU. “This lack of consensus is clearly seen in the European Council, a type of group that reaches agreements not through unanimity, but rather through tough and intimidating meetings” The ideal formula is multifaceted: for example, male leaders view the issue of security in terms of military investment, while for female leaders security involves access to safe drinking water and education, and maintaining a safe environment for women and children. This vision, she continues, is not just a feminine perspective; it is in fact the European way.

The Economist, without discussing Wallstrom’s opinion, does indeed consider her somewhat naïve, in that daily life in the 27 nations of the EU tells a different story: the EU nations are neither as agreeable nor as pacifistic as she makes them out to be. An example of this is the election of harsh presidents such as Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi, and Nicolás Sarkozy. In turn, the countries of Eastern Europe are becoming increasingly protectionist in regard to their national interests.

This lack of consensus is clearly seen in the European Council, a type of group that reaches agreements not through unanimity, but rather through tough and intimidating meetings. The Commission, for its part, has a standout number of women in its command posts, but this is mainly due to measures implemented by its president, José Manuel Durao Barroso. However, there are still fewer than ten women leading the institution.

It is precisely these institutions, predominantly male in composition, that suffer from the credibility crisis among the citizens. My thesis falls halfway between Walström’s position and The Economist’s reply: an EU led by women would not necessarily guarantee that it would operate smoothly, but I dare say that it would work better. To that end, both the Union and the national governments must implement policies that involve women in decision-making, and this necessarily requires that men be involved in areas that are normally considered feminine: the family and the home.

KEEPING THE SYMPTOMS IN CHECK

“An effort must be made to instill a passion for certain professions during the early years of schooling” The new Spanish Minister of Equality, Bibiana Aido, has made headlines more than once in recent weeks for her use of the masculine and feminine genders in her vocabulary. Implementing a policy of equality is not simple because it addresses cultural and social aspects that are too deeply ingrained in the collective unconscious (of both men and women). However, perhaps the aspirations of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s government concerning equality would be more realizable and fruitful if the issue were approached from many different angles, allowing for the implementation of egalitarian policies across different departments.

Barcelona recently hosted the conference Gender, Science and the Economy: Exploring Women’s Participation in Technology Transfer, Incubation and Entrepreneurship (TIE) [5], in which the current role of women in business, science, and technology was discussed: once again, female presence has shown itself to be inversely proportional to job status. In these fields in particular, we must talk about certain prejudiced tendencies based on supposed skills: these are traditionally masculine fields, while other, more gentle fields (from teaching to nursing) are traditionally feminine. “The persistence of disparities is a sign that the labor market is not working well, since it does not support individual aspirations and abilities” Education is the key to changing this pattern. An effort must be made to instill a passion for certain professions during the early years of schooling, so that we might reap the benefits in college and later on when career paths are chosen.

This educational factor is tied to the need to implement policies of reconciliation so that women are not forced to weigh their priorities when a job promotion clashes with personal accomplishment. National governments, in coordination with Brussels, should seek out social assistance and subsidies to enable compatibility between work and family life. This involves measures such as promoting work schedules that do not restrict personal life, providing citizens with access to resources to facilitate such compatibility (for example, daycare centers in business), or combating wage discrimination by attacking the problem at its root. In this regard, it is important to remember that the persistence of disparities is a sign that the labor market is not working well, since it does not support individual aspirations and abilities.

AN ISSUE THAT CONCERNS EVERYONE

“The image of the Spanish minister of Defense, Carme Chacón, inspecting the troops weeks before giving birth to her first child, was at the time as powerful as it was pedagogic” This analysis began with an allusion to Denmark, and in fact Denmark is an exemplary case in terms of equality and labor conciliation policies. It is not surprising that Danes become parents while they are still in college: the government provides them with all types of aid and subsidies, well aware that the investment will be very profitable over time. What the Danish government is doing is investing in its citizens, the potential producers and consumers that support the welfare state.

Undoubtedly, any governmental effort will fall on deaf ears if half of the necessary contributors (men) does not take on their co-responsibilities. According to EU reports, 87 percent of European men do not exercise their right to enjoy paternity leave.

First times are always important, both in politics and in life. Old habits die hard, but history shows us that, despite prejudices, societies adapt, evolve, and internalize changes in order to continue functioning. Thus, the image of the Spanish Minister of Defense, Carme Chacón, inspecting the troops weeks before giving birth to her first child, was at the time as powerful as it was pedagogic (and why not say it, stimulating).

Worud the European Union work better, then, with more female leadership? Its society as a whole would work better if based on conciliatory and integrative bases to strengthen the welfare state and ensure that the principles and values upon which the EU was founded 50 years ago prevail.

After all, women have been leading the most complex organization for centuries upon centuries: the family. And, for better or for worse, here we are.