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Breaking the glass ceiling

Breaking the glass ceiling
By Euronews
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Only 3% of chief executives in big European companies are women, 14% sit as company board members. The situation is slowly changing, however the European Union believes at this current rate, it will take 50 years to achieve gender balanced boardrooms.

The “glass ceiling”, which symbolises the barrier preventing women reaching top positions still exists all over Europe. Anne Marie Dominguez experienced this first hand and after winning an appeal for unfair dismissal, she set up her own business in Lyon. She spoke to euronews about her experiences in a gender unbalanced workplace.

“They told me OK, you have skills we want to work with you at the same time they told me, as soon as you move a finger we need to know it and to sign it. It was really annoying, and I really had the impression that it was related to being a woman.

“They were restricting what I could and couldn’t do. That is to say that I always had to make justifications and ask before I did anything. Everything regarding the budgets and procedures had to be signed and validated beforehand, so I had very little freedom. I was not given the enough power to perform my mission or my job.”

More countries are pushing for change whether it is encouraging businesses with self-regulating initiatives or adopting legislative solutions. The European Commission is preparing a draft legislation stating that at least 40 percent of boardrooms should be made up of women by 2020. Avivah Wittenberg Cox is a CEO who works with executives to build more diverse companies. She thinks the quotas can raise awareness on this deep-rooted issue:

“I wish we had a glass ceiling because that’s actually much better than what we do have, a glass ceiling gives everybody the impression which is women are blocked just from the very top, which is what is called the glass ceiling. That’s actually not what I’ve ever seen in every company. Almost from the very first management levels you see the percentage of men beginning to rise and the percentage of women begin to drop off. That’s not a glass ceiling, we call it gender asbestos.”

The UK is among the EU countries stepping up attempts to address the gender gap with self-regulatory initiatives, however it is one of the strongest opponents to an EU-wide legislation on quotas.

In 2007 12 percent of the biggest UK companies’ boards where made up of women. Today that number stands at more than 16%. The increase is thanks to Government recommendations and initiatives like the 30% Club, which works with chairmen to change business culture:

“We want to achieve 30% of female representation of UK boards by 2015 and we’re actually making some really good progress having had quite a slow start. Since March of this year 44% of the new board appointees have been female, so we’re getting there and there’s definitely momentum,” she said.

Recent research has shown that closing the gender gap could boost the Euro zone’s gross domestic product by up to 13%”, but what are the key elements to gender balanced businesses?

After making gender balance its goal years ago, a quarter of global management consulting group Accenture’s board is made up of women, beating the British average. Fiona O’Hara is director of operations at the company which uses several programmes to attract and advance its female employees. She explains how offering support is key for some female employees.

“Accenture has been looking at diversity and how to put it high for a business probably for more than 10 years. One of the things that we found was that women returning from maternity leave we had a return of about 75% we’ve now managed to increase that to 90% through putting a lot more support around those women when they are in maternity leave and when they want to come back. We’ve been very flexible our approach on how they return to work,” she said.

Accenture has also introduced a mentoring program focusing on top jobs for talented, driven women.

Simon Eaves, head of products at the company is one of the programmes mentors:

“We started the programme about one year ago, and in that programme I sponsor five women who are high performing in our organisation and I spend a lot of time with helping to coach mentor and understand how we shape their careers within Accenture ,” he explains.

Thales Group specialises in aerospace, transport and security. Actively working on gender balance, 22% of its employees – from all over the world – are women. Four out of sixteen of the company’s board members are female, that is the equivalent to 25%. Marion Broughton is Vice President of Thales UK. Responsible for Avionics and Air operation businesses she thinks women in her field have to prove themselves if they want to advance.

“As soon as I started to get positions of management, yes you had to do a little bit more, yes, people were looking for, just to check they had made the right decision when they put a woman in that management position, and I had to work very hard to get those promotions, but I don’t count those as barriers to progress,” she said.

Since 2009, Thales has been keeping close tabs on its number of “top level” women and is aiming for progressive annual increases. The percentage of high ranking female employees there has risen from 9% in 2009 to 11% in 2012.

Anne Ravaran, Vice President, Legal and HR Ethics talks about companies responsibilities:

“What’s important is that the company takes its own initiatives. Because it would be a strategic error for it not to be part of this desire to have diversity in business.”

France is among the European countries that have adopted a quota law together with Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain. This means that by 2017, 40 percent of board members in these countries will have to be female. France has shown the fastest growth in putting women in top positions going from 9% in 2007, to 22% in 2012. That is ten points up since the law was adopted last year.

Though quotas might bring results, they also bring controversy and the corporate world has voiced concern over sanctions and meritocracy.

Pia Heitz Casanova, CEO EURO CRM is one such critic:

“A quota is still submitted in regards to minorities and that may have a rather negative effect in the same way as someone might say ‘you’re a woman, you’re in this position and on this board ultimately because you’re a woman and you’re there because there are quotas’,” she said.

Vice President of the European Commission Viviane Reding who has championed the draft legislation, points out that quotas would be a temporary measure, until a gender balanced boardroom is achieved:

“It would be completely wrong to take women in just because they are female. We need to take women in because they are talents, because they know to do the job, because they are an asset. So it is not about only the female factor, it is about the human capacity, but we do not do well if we leave part of our human capacity aside just because they are women,” she said.

Quotas for company boards might be a milestone for gender equality, but the question is will it make any difference in how companies are run?

Avivah Wittenberg Cox explains that gender balanced boardrooms do not necessarily mean gender balanced business:

“We say the best measure of whether or not a company is gender balanced or not is not a hotly debated corporate board that everybody is talking about right now, a much better indicator is the executive committee, it is them who are actually running the company. Corporate boards are relatively simple to gender balance, you just have to put in a few women non exec directors which is what a lot of companies are doing,” she concludes.

Women still have a long way to go if they want to reach the targets issued by the European Commission – position, salary and respect in the workplace are vital if gender balance is to be achieved. When that happens the glass ceiling will be a thing of the past, but for now it stands as a reminder as to how far women have to go to find equality in the business world.

Bonus Web: Interview with Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of 20-first

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