The domain of political and economic power is one of the few areas in which the 2021 index of the European Institute for Gender Equality shows slow but considerable progress over time. It is becoming much more commonplace to see women in parliaments, governments and at the helm of businesses. And yet, the EU is only halfway towards achieving gender equality, and business seems to represent the toughest nut to crack by far.
Gender balance in decision-making is one of the three main pillars of the EU Gender Equality Strategy 2020–2025. This strategy emphasises the importance of having women in leadership positions across political, economic and social spheres, and has an accompanying action plan that aims to make gender equality the norm at every level of decision-making.
The domain of power comprises three subdomains: the subdomain of political power relates to the representation of women and men in national parliaments, governments and regional/local assemblies; the subdomain of economic power examines the ratio between women and men on the corporate boards of the largest nationally registered companies and central banks; while the subdomain of social power includes data on decisionmakers in research funding organisations, public broadcasters and the most popular national sports’ federations.
When it comes to political power, the most progressive EU institution in terms of gender equality at present is the European Commission, where women and men are almost on par – with 13 women (48%) and 14 men (52%). The European Parliament consists of 39% women and 61% men, which is also a positive result. However, if we observe national parliaments across the Union, we see that women account for only one in three members of EU national parliaments.
Among the most impenetrable fortresses of male dominance are corporate boardrooms: in large companies, fewer than 1 in 10 board chairs or CEOs are women, while – viewed as a whole – women account for only 30% of company leadership positions.
Even in areas where the presence of women has increased, such as research, media and sport, this increase hasn’t translated into increased influence over decision making. This was illustrated well during the pandemic. While women took on the burden of protecting the health of their families during the viral outbreak and were also among the majority of front-line first responders to the pandemic, they were barely present among pandemic emergency decision-making bodies. For instance, across 87 UN Member States, only 3.5 % of the 115 COVID-19 decision-making and expert taskforces had gender parity, while men represented the majority in 85.2% of cases.
The reasons for the systemic underrepresentation of women in decision-making positions are similar to the reasons for their underrepresentation in other areas. Stereotypes, coupled with the heavy burden of housework and home care duties, persistently limit the active presence of women in public life, while these issues are only exacerbated by workplace discrimination and gender-based violence.
As noted above, EU institutions have increasingly turned their attention towards advancing the representation of women in political and economic decision-making. Among the ground-breaking steps that brought this question into the limelight was the European Commission’s 2021 decision to propose a directive to improve the gender balance among non-executive directors of listed companies, with a minimum target of 40% of the underrepresented gender, but that directive has since been blocked in the Council.
Nationally, rapid progress on the gender balance in decisionmaking has been achieved since 2010 in France, Luxembourg, Italy, Germany and Spain, while that change has gone in the opposite direction in Czechia and Hungary
Progress on gender equality in decision- making has nevertheless been seen since 2010. The EU score for the domain of power has increased by 13.1 points, including a 1.9-point increase between 2018 and 2019 alone. And yet, the overall score of 55 points remains the lowest of all domains.
Advances towards gender balance equilibrium in the subdomain of economic decision-making – such as on the boards of the largest companies and central banks – was evident and mainly driven by binding legislative measures and other government actions in several countries, which peaked between 2012 and 2016 and have since slowed noticeably.
Gender equality in political decision- making was also driven by government action. From 2010 to 2019, countries with legislative electoral quotas nearly doubled the proportion of women in parliament on average, compared with those lacking such quotas.
In areas not covered by such measures, progress was scant. Marginal progress has been achieved when it comes to the inclusion of women in decision-making processes in research, the media and sport, with the biggest gender imbalance to be found in sport, where women accounted for just 17% of the members of boards of the 10 most popular national sporting federations in 2020.
In Spain, for example, women were included in several decision-making bodies and institutions in 2019, particularly in government units and on the boards of public broadcaster RTVE, as well the national federations of the 10 most popular sports. The Netherlands has moved closer to gender parity on the management boards of its central bank and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, while Belgium saw significant progress towards a gender balance in its central bank and government, according to the EIGE 2021 report.
The representation of women in corporate leadership is also improving, albeit slowly. In 2021, women accounted for 30% of board members of the largest publicly listed companies in EU member states. Although this figure marks an all-time high, it is still the smallest annual increase since 2010. Legislative action in a few countries may have driven boardroom progress, but many countries need to do more to catch up with the numbers in France, where at least 40% of each gender is on the boards of the largest companies, with women holding 45% of all board seats. And France is followed closely by Belgium, Italy and Sweden.
Overall, 23% of the largest companies in the EU have boards that include at least 40% of each gender, though nearly a fifth of these companies still have all-male boards. In Bulgaria, Estonia and Hungary more than half of the largest companies have no female board members whatsoever.
Measures for the greater inclusion of women on boards span from ‘soft’ measures that encourage companies to self-regulate and take independent action, to ‘hard’ regulatory approaches that include quotas combined with sanctions for non-compliance.
Both hard and soft measures have so far yielded the following results: Spain has equality legislation recommending a minimum of 40% of each gender on company boards, but that recommendation is not enforceable. Meanwhile, Slovenia has a legislative quota of 40% when nominating government representatives to the boards of public companies, but non-compliance is not sanctioned. Other countries in this group have opted to encourage companies to self-regulate in order to redress the boardroom gender imbalance. The remaining 11 EU member states have not initiated any substantive action.