Is Gender Equality a Male versus Female Matter?

As you have probably read or heard last week, the 8th of March is the International Women’s Day. For more than a century now society is “celebrating” women’s rights and gender equality in a one-day format considered to create momentum and renew each year the impetus on the issue.

Yes, women’s rights have made huge progress over the last decades, but in many sense gender equality remains quite uneven in the different parts of the world, including in the European Union and the most economically advanced countries.

Women have gained political rights and power, have entered the labour market in mass, but in companies for instance the famous “glass ceiling”, preventing them to further move to the top position of decision-making, is prevailing.

This year, on 5 March, the Vice-President of the European Commission, and Commissioner for Justice, Viviane Reding, announced the launching of a public consultation on the ways to increase the proportion of women in corporate boardrooms of publicly listed companies. This is an initiative backed by the European Women’s Lobby and the European Parliament, just to name a few, in the hope that the Commission will succeed in introducing legally binding quotas at European level.

But legislating at the top is a case for not seeing the woods for the trees. Indeed, the focus is put on those highly visible executive and board positions, whereas the challenge remains to bring women at every level of a company and also in the better sharing of family responsibilities with men.

Legislating on reconciliation or the segregation of labour markets is something quite impossible to do. This explains why the Commission considers quotas as the solution, hopping that this tool would create a “shock” in the ways business manage equality and diversity at large.

Some controversial examples exist but remain limited in scope and number. This is the case of the Norwegian quota law implemented in 2003, or more recently the French quota law supported by the MEDEF, the French employers federation. If research papers, notably the much publicized McKinsey study, supports the link between high performance and diversity, there is no evidence of the direct effect of a quota law as such to foster equality.

What remains to be done, is a push for deep cultural change and in particular on the ways men acknowledge and accept gender equality, both at work and in their private life. This translates into using flexible working arrangements for instance, or proving other male colleagues that it’s ok to go pick up the kid at school around 5:30pm, while ensuring that women who now make 60% of school graduates get into the talent pipeline and re-enter quickly the job market after a maternity leave.

The whole debate around the corporate boardroom and the responsibility given to “role models” is kind of a distraction because no one can consider joining a board and just working part-time. Therefore, this will not solve the real problem and we should acknowledge that, if progress is slow, it will still be, especially in times of economic uncertainty where the room for manoeuvre is quite narrow.

Gender equality is not a zero-sum game and everyone should benefit from it, women and men altogether. Now, more than women taking responsibilities, it is up to the men to show commitment and radical change.

William Spac
Membre des Cabris de l’Europe

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