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Breaking into the boardroom

Last week, a debate began over the Euro­pean Union con­sid­ering leg­is­la­tion that would create quotas for the number of women in in top busi­ness posi­tions. We asked Laura Frader, pro­fessor of his­tory and asso­ciate dean of fac­ulty in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties, to explain why women are still under­rep­re­sented in busi­ness and how legal action might accel­erate gender equality.

For decades, women have been working for increased equality and empowerment in the workplace, particularly in business. Why are many women still having trouble breaking into the top echelons?

Cul­tural per­cep­tions of gender dif­fer­ence and the prac­tices to which they lead are cru­cial. Although in Europe, as in the United States, there is gen­eral accep­tance of women’s labor force par­tic­i­pa­tion, beliefs about what con­sti­tutes appro­priate work for women still restrict the kinds of jobs to which women are directed from a rel­a­tively young age. In Europe as in the United States, beliefs about men’s “innate capacity” to lead are also part of cul­tural per­cep­tions of gender divi­sions; these per­cep­tions have con­crete effects on women’s ability to achieve posi­tions in the top ech­e­lons of the busi­ness world as well as in the polit­ical world. The notion of the board­room as a kind of men’s club is a product of beliefs about gender dif­fer­ence and men’s reluc­tance to share power with women.

What potential backlash and benefits could result from this potential EU legislation?

The pro­posal for quotas responds to a recent report showing that women con­sti­tute less than 14 per­cent of the mem­bers of cor­po­rate boards and just over 3 per­cent of the chairs of major cor­po­ra­tions. There is already a debate brewing about the value of affir­ma­tive action, and some will surely resist quotas if they are imposed. Many Euro­peans – espe­cially cor­po­rate leaders – resent being required to con­form to Euro­pean norms. Women stand to ben­efit from EU sup­port that will allow them to get a foot in the door of the board­room. Paying atten­tion to the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women means that cor­po­ra­tions will draw on a larger pool of talent. Quotas are far from ideal, but data show that they do have a pos­i­tive effect in breaking down bar­riers to gender (and other forms of) equality over time.

What are some options to foster societal and cultural changes that help women break through the “glass ceiling?” Are quotas a viable option to delivering genuine equality in the workplace?

Quotas are not enough – a cul­ture of social sol­i­darity is also crit­ical. Both France and Norway illus­trate that mea­sures to sup­port gender equity on cor­po­rate boards and in the labor force overall must be accom­pa­nied by robust social sup­port for women’s equal par­tic­i­pa­tion such as day care, paid mater­nity leave and equal pay.

A strong tra­di­tion of women’s polit­ical rep­re­sen­ta­tion also helps. In Norway, for example, women con­sti­tute close to 40 per­cent of the mem­bers of par­lia­ment –one of the highest pro­por­tions in Europe – so Nor­we­gians are used to seeing women in lead­er­ship posi­tions more gen­er­ally. Polit­ical and eco­nomic equality are mutu­ally reinforcing.

– by Northeastern News

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