Viviane Reding

Equality on the whole has long been a hotly debated topic. Equality in the workplace, in particular for the most prestigious and highly paid jobs, seems to be one of the hot topics of the moment.

In the past the Government has asked for some of the bigger companies to make a concerted effort to ensure that there are more women in board level positions. In furtherance of this goal, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has announced a three month consultation period that could lead to an introduction of a formal quota system. The announcement comes as a result of what she referred to as 'limited' progress in reaching the voluntary targets they had previously put forward.

Last year, Reding asked corporations to increase the number of women on their boards to thirty per cent by 2015 and forty per cent by 2020. Clearly, she feels that the progress made this far is not indicative of these goals being reached. Some European countries such as Belgium and France have already introduced a quota system. Others have placed the quota only on those companies that are state-owned. Reding admits to not liking quota systems in general but understands that they can be an effective tool for achieving such goals as these.

However, not everyone agrees with the idea of a quota system. The founder of 30pc, Helena Morrisey, which promotes gender equality, says that a quota would actually undermine equality. She finds the idea patronising to women. She referred to those countries that have imposed quotas and that fact they can have a negative effect on shareholder value. Equality in the workplace should be about the right person for the job getting the job regardless of their gender, race or social background. If a quota is imposed it could lead to a woman being chosen over a man when the man in that case is actually the better applicant for the job. This would not be equality.

Rather than encourage the introduction of quotas some believe that it is better to continue with the voluntary route. Whilst that may be the better route it is also acknowledged that at the current rate of change it would take forty years for forty per cent of women to be on the boards of Europe's publicly traded companies. If companies and shareholders alike do not want to see a quota system then their best course of action is to make an effort to improve the number of women in board level positions. This way they can help show that legislation is not needed and ensure that the right person for the job gets it based on merit and not a quota.

Presence on the board is not the only area in which women are currently lagging behind men in the workplace. Business consultancy Mercer has revealed that women in executive positions in Europe earn up to a fifth less than men in an equivalent role. For example, in Germany women are paid up to twenty two per cent less than men. The gap in the UK is 9 per cent. The pay gap between genders is at its widest between the ages of 40 and 49. This coincides with the career breaks women often take when they have children. This is why it is so important for companies to look at ways of increasingly the flexibility of working so as to create a more even playing field. It is by making voluntary changes such as this that an official quota can be avoided.

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