Last week, European Union Justice Minister Viviane Reding proposed requiring 40 percent female representation on all European Union (EU) public company boards by 2020 (state-owned companies must meet the requirement by 2018). This is a strong-arm tactic to address gender disparity on corporate boards, which is common worldwide: European corporate boards have roughly 12 percent women, and globally women make up about 10 percent of corporate board members. If the European Commission approves Reding’s proposal, the EU will join the ranks of Norway, India and several other governments that already have similar quotas for women’s representation on corporate boards.
The United States is not among these governments; in fact, Reding’s proposal is proof of the stark disparity in policy aggressiveness on gender parity issues in the United States versus other countries. In the United States, there are no policies in place with teeth to actually increase women’s leadership in business–and there aren’t really any policy proposals in the pipeline, either.
Even though women’s representation on corporate boards hovers at barely 16 percent in the United States, it is unlikely that government-mandated gender parity quotas could ever be politically palatable here. More importantly, it is unclear whether government-mandated quotas are a sound policy solution for increasing women’s influence and changing how institutions act. European countries have shown some detrimental results from the quotas they have instituted, as documented by the World Bank’s recent report “Gender Quotas and Female Leadership.” The report found that some male leaders of corporate firms respond strategically to government quotas in order to dilute their impact, and that some countries with quotas have been slow to achieve compliance. Quotas have long been unappealing to many Americans, even, for example, in the context of college admissions–U.S. feminists know that pushing for gender quotas could be politically disastrous.