Legislative action makes a difference

Women’s representation in corporate leadership is improving, albeit slowly. In 2021, 30 % of board members of the largest publicly listed companies in Member States were women. Although this figures is an all-time high, it is still the lowest annual increase since 2010. Legislative action in a few countries may have driven boardroom progress, but there is still much to do.

France remains the only EU country to have at least 40 % of each gender on the boards of the largest companies, with women holding 45 % of all positions. Belgium, Italy and Sweden are close behind, with around 38 % of board members being women. In Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Finland, women account for 33 % of board members. Elsewhere, men still heavily outnumber women. In 10 Member States, women hold less than 20 % of board positions, while in Estonia, Hungary and Malta they account for 10 % or even less (Figure 18).

Overall, 23 % of the largest companies in the EU have at least 40 % of each gender on their boards. However, nearly one in five still have all-male boards. In Bulgaria, Estonia and Hungary, more than half the largest companies have no women board members at all.

Figure 18. Participation of women on the boards of the largest quoted companies (supervisory boards or boards of directors) and binding quotas, by EU Member State (%, April 2021)

NB: National gender quota targets: FR, IT (40 %), BE, PT (33 %), DE, AT (30 %), EL (25 %).

Source: EIGE Gender Statistics Database, Women and Men in Decision-Making (WMID).

Various Member States have acted to promote more gender-balanced representation in corporate leadership. Adopted strategies vary from ‘soft’ measures, to encourage companies to self-regulate and take independent action, to ‘hard’, regulatory, approaches. These include applying legally binding quotas for minimum representation for each gender, with sanctions for non-compliance in some cases.

So far, seven Member States have taken legislative action to rectify gender imbalance in boardrooms by setting quotas for a minimum level of the under-represented sex – France and Italy (40 %)[1], Belgium and Portugal (33 %), Germany and Austria (30 %) and Greece (25 %). Greece introduced quotas in July 2020 when updating the legal framework on corporate governance.

Nine other Member States (DK, IE, ES, LU, NL, PL, SI, FI and SE) have taken a softer approach[2]. Spain has equality legislation that recommends a minimum of 40 % of each gender on company boards, but the recommendation is not enforceable. Meanwhile, Slovenia has a 40 % legislative quota when nominating government representatives to the boards of public companies; however, non-compliance is not sanctioned.

Other countries in this group have preferred to encourage companies to self-regulate to redress boardroom gender imbalance. The remaining 11 Member States (BG, CZ, EE, HR, CY, LV, LT, HU, MT, RO and SK) have not taken any substantive action.

Quota targets have been met in France (October 2016), Germany (October 2017), Belgium (April 2019) and Austria (October 2019). Italy achieved its initial target of 33 % in October 2017, and now, with 39 % of women on boards, it is close to reaching the 40 % target set in October 2019.

Of the two remaining countries with established gender quotas, Portugal has seen significant progress (women’s representation on boards has increased from 16 % in October 2017 to 28 % in April 2021) but in Greece the quota was introduced too recently (July 2020) to have made much difference and, as at April 2021, women make up just 15 % of board members.

The impact of binding gender quotas is clear. In April 2021, women accounted for 38 % of the board members of the largest listed companies in six Member States with binding quotas. In countries with ‘soft’ measures, the figure was 31 %, and in countries where no action was taken it was 16 %.

Quotas have led to the rate of change more than tripling – from 0.9 p.p. per year prior to quotas to 3 p.p. per year afterwards. The rate of change in countries with ‘soft’ measures is 1.5 p.p. per year, whereas, in countries without any initiatives, it idles at just 0.3 p.p. per year. At the current rate of change, countries with binding quotas will take around 4 years to achieve boardroom gender parity. In countries with ‘soft’ measures, parity could take about 13 years. For those taking no specific action it will take at least a startling 125 years[3].

Legislative assemblies and executive governments at all territorial levels largely fail to reflect the gender diversity of the population they represent. Women remain significantly under-represented in many cases. Progress on gender balance in political decision-making is extremely slow. At the start of 2021, women made up 33 % of members of the single/lower house of national parliaments in the EU overall. While this marks an all-time high, it is not balance.

Nationally, parliaments in Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Austria, France, Portugal, Finland and Sweden have at least 40 % of each gender. The Netherlands is close behind, at 39 %. Representation is lowest in Hungary and Malta, where women make up less than one in seven members of parliament (Figure 19).

Figure 19. Share of women in single/lower houses of parliament (%, EU, March 2021)

NB: Quotas: BE, FR (50 %); IE, EL, ES, HR, IT, LU, PT (40 %); PL, SI (35 %).

Source: EIGE Gender Statistics Database, WMID.

Since France and Belgium introduced legally binding quotas, in 2000 and 2002, respectively, 11 Member States have introduced legislation setting minimum gender quotas on candidate lists put forward by political parties in national parliamentary elections. The most recent legislation was adopted in Luxembourg (2016) and Italy (2017). In 2019, both Greece and Portugal raised their quotas from 33 % to 40 %.

Ireland, Spain, Luxembourg, Poland and Slovenia all show accelerated progress after adopting quotas. Poland’s progress is the most striking. Figures for women parliamentarians oscillated between 20 % and 22 % from 2004 to 2011. After the quota introduction and the 2011 elections, the figure rose to 24 %. By 2021, 28 % of Polish members of parliament were women.

In Slovenia, although the quota was adopted in 2006, it came into full effect only in the 2011 elections, following which the percentage of women parliamentarians jumped from 17 % to 36 %. However, progress was short-lived. Following the 2018 elections women accounted for just 24 % of members of parliament, rising slightly to 27 % by March 2021.

Analysis shows that legislated quotas generally have a positive impact. In countries with quotas, the average annual rate of change of the proportion of women in the single/lower house has, on average, increased slightly, from 0.8 p.p. per year pre-quota adoption to 0.9 p.p. per year afterwards. However, the post-quota rate of change is nearly three times faster than in Member States without quotas, where the rate of change is 0.3 p.p. per year.

At current rates of change, countries without measures in place are projected to take more than 60 years to achieve gender parity in parliament, while countries with binding quotas are expected to take less than 20 years.