Fair representation for women on company boards

This week in Strasbourg MEPs have been discussing the issue of Women on Boards and the idea that at least 40% of non-executive directors on listed company boards should be female.

The discussion arose from a draft EU directive designed to ensure we reach this level by 2020. This draft was approved by the last European Parliament in November 2013, but the Council of Ministers has yet to state a position on it.

The Parliament’s Resolution called on the member states to ensure that listed companies take effective measures to guarantee equal access for both women and men to non-executive positions on boards so as to ensure that by 2020, at least 40% of non-executive directors’ positions are held by women.

When the Parliament was debating this resolution, only 17.6% of non-executive board members of the EU’s largest companies were women. Women make up half the population, 60% of graduates are women and more than 70% of purchasing decisions are made by women. For women to be so under-represented on company boards is simply unacceptable.

However women remain under-represented in many sectors. In terms of company boards women are simply less likely than men to be asked to join. Sometimes the roles are not publically advertised; sometimes women may lack the information about how to access these roles successfully. Sometimes the problem comes down to those who are doing the appointing – gender stereotypes exist in all of us, whether we like to admit it or not and these unconscious biases can undermine attempts at promoting equality.

Under the proposed legislation, where candidates are equally well qualified, priority should be given to the candidate of the under-represented sex. The proposed rules would not apply to SMEs – only companies with more than 250 employees would be covered by the law.

This is an issue the Labour Party take very seriously – we have publically stated that a Labour Government will back targets to ensure at least 40% of seats on public sector boards are held by women by 2020.

Ed Miliband has said he wants 50% of his Cabinet to be women. And, in fact, if you look at the composition of the Shadow Cabinet, we’re almost there – 15 to be precise. Just under half of the thirty-two members of the Labour Shadow Cabinet are women.

Given that roughly half of our population is female, this should not come as surprise, but sadly in politics this is still the exception.

Looking across the aisle at the Tory/Lib Dem front bench and you will spy a sea of suits and ties – a Cabinet that is vastly dominated by men.

Yet again, it is Labour leading the way in terms of gender equality and political parity in the UK.

At Cameron’s last reshuffle he increased the number of female cabinet members from four to five – quite the increase! How can this coalition claim to look out for the needs of women if it has only five women? How can this coalition claim to look out for the whole of the UK when it shows a total disregard for half of our population?

Gender equality is a core value of the European Union. Right from when the EEC came into being in 1957 the founding treaty included the principle of equal pay for equal work.

We need to ensure gender equality and parity in the UK – the Tories certainly aren’t going to do it. Vote Labour for a government that works in the interests of women.