Monday, November 12, 2012

Gender equality means more than stilettos in the boardroom

At least twice over the past few years, the Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli has created a stir simply by bringing her young daughter to work. The resulting media coverage has filled me with an unpleasant sense of déjà vu.

Back in the 1990s, I was an assistant to an Irish politician, Patricia McKenna, who had a child during her first term in the European Parliament. Once, McKenna was shown on the main evening news bulletin minding her baby and participating in a committee meeting at the same time. For days afterwards, a popular radio talk show in Dublin received numerous calls from irate men (and, if I remember correctly, a few women). Most callers argued that nobody could do a job properly, while simultaneously attending to an infant's needs. Behind their attempts to sound reasonable lurked sexist mindsets. The subtext of the argument was that parliaments are clubs for boys; any girls wishing to join would have to play by rules that the boys had written.

As a bearded bloke, I feel slightly ill-at-ease addressing issues of gender. Yet I'm convinced that feminism is an ideology that merits support from men. Every positive change is incomplete unless the discrimination faced by our sisters and wives is eliminated.

So why am I less than excited about efforts by Viviane Reding, the EU's justice commissioner, to place more women in corporate boardrooms?


Lest I be misunderstood, I think it is disgraceful that over one-third of large companies in the EU have no women on their boards of directors and that 97% of all large firms are chaired by a man. The culture engendered by these male-dominated groups is likely to be despicable. Since the eruption of the economic crisis, a number of books have documented how sexual harassment was rife on Wall Street and - worse - how little, if any, action was taken against male bankers who sexually abused female colleagues. There is no reason to surmise that the behaviour of high-flying businessmen is more exemplary this side of the Atlantic.

The data I have cited comes from a survey that the European Commission conducted of almost 600 firms. Reding wishes to have quotas introduced whereby there would be a minimum of four women on each board of ten. Assuming the quotas are respected, this means that a total of 2,400 women would be promoted by the 600 or so top corporations.

At most, then, Reding's initiative will benefit a few thousand women but make no difference to the other 250 million women in the Union. Is this something to celebrate?

It's a safe bet that Viviane Reding, personally knows some of the women who would be promoted if her initiative is implemented (at this stage, it is unclear if it will be because a number of Reding's fellow commissioners are opposed). As a wealthy Sorbonne-educated Christian Democrat, Reding appears more eager to help advance women of status, than to help advance the status of women.

Reding's desire to promote women who are already in privileged positions cannot distract from how the institution she represents is causing immense harm to ordinary women through its slash-and-burn economic policies.

Women are frequently the first victims of the austerity agenda that the European Commission is overseeing. In Spain, the ministry for gender equality has been abolished altogether. Spending on child care - a vital service for women working outside the home - has been reduced drastically in Estonia and Bulgaria. In Ireland, the reduction in special needs assistants is placing an extra burden on the mothers of children with learning difficulties. The closure of schools in Greece puts extra strain on women. The gap between women's and men's pay has reportedly widened in Lithuania and the Czech Republic. Studies in Britain have shown how benefit reductions affect young women far more than men. This is particularly the case with cuts to allowances for single mothers as over 90% of lone parents in the UK are women.

A better way

Germaine Greer seems to have attracted more attention lately for her comments about the Australian prime minister's dress sense than anything else. This is a pity as many of Greer's teachings remain as relevant today as they ever were. "If women can see no future apart from joining the masculine elite on its own terms, our civilisation will become more destructive than ever," she has written. "There has to be a better way."

This better way cannot be achieved simply by striving for some kind of equilibrium between the levels of testosterone and oestrogen in the headquarters of corporations. Nor can it be achieved by trying to make capitalism a bit more maternal. It can only be achieved by replacing the rotten system we have at the moment with something more humane.

Feminism is not about women being as tough as men. It is not about Margaret Thatcher declaring war on the Falkland Islands or Angela Merkel wrecking Europe's welfare states. The equality it aims for is an inclusive one, not an equality confined to 600 or so corporations. Feminism is the antithesis of competitiveness, that inequality-widening doctrine enshrined in EU law. By weakening labour rights, competitiveness makes it easier for bosses to exploit women.

It's worth recalling that the feminist movement used to be synonymous with the battle cry "women's liberation". Surely, liberation means more than having a few more skirts and stilettos in the boardroom.

•First published by New Europe, 11-17 November 2012.

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