Women mount Yes-We-Can gender campaign in run-up to EU elections

Mainly men on boards of largest publicly listed companies. (Bloomberg pic)

BRUSSELS: There are more women in the European Union than men. But you wouldn’t know it from top jobs in the bloc’s business, politics or civil society.

That’s what an activist group in Brussels wants to fix. With less than a year to go before EU legislative elections, Women Enablers Change Agent Network, or WECAN, on Tuesday plans to kick-start a campaign to push for women in top EU posts and on company boards.

Women make up more than 51% of the EU’s population, and while there are advances, Europe has plenty more to do on gender equality, the group says. Its goal: to seek an irreversible breakthrough.

“It’s about changing the mindset so that it’s a natural thing — whenever you have to make a decision about a position — to think about a male candidate and a female candidate,” Connie Hedegaard, a former EU climate chief from Denmark, said in a phone interview. “It’s not about quotas. It’s just about making qualified women more visible, bringing them into the discussion.”

With the European Parliament due to hold elections in May 2019, the empowerment of women is slated to be a major campaign theme along with other emotive issues such as immigration, unemployment, security and the bloc’s post-Brexit future.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, a Socialist who took office this month after engineering the removal of Christian Democrat Mariano Rajoy in a no-confidence vote, signalled the political resonance of gender equality by appointing a cabinet that includes more women (11) than men (seven).

Three Posts
At stake in the European campaign are roles atop the three main EU institutions, all run by men and due for new leaders at various points next year. The organizations are the EU Parliament, the European Commission — the bloc’s executive arm — and the chair of the meetings of national government heads.

With the EU simultaneously negotiating its first post-Brexit multi-annual budget, the WECAN initiative can influence how Europe sets its spending priorities and give a boost to the role of women in the economy, according to Constance Kann, director of international relations at the Luxembourg-based European Investment Bank.

“There are additional barriers for female entrepreneurs to have access to finance, so we need to do something about that,” Kann said by e-mail. “We can also generate gender benefits if we design investment projects in the right way. That is why we are training our loan officers to ensure we grab opportunities to deliver on gender equality.”

The boards of the largest publicly listed companies in the EU are dominated by men, with women accounting for just a quarter of membership, according to the European Institute for Gender Equality in Vilnius, Lithuania. On this basis, France is the best performer, while Estonia, Malta and Cyprus rank as the main laggards.

European institutions don’t perform much better. While the share of senior female officials in the EU bureaucracy has almost doubled since 2004, it’s still only around 30%, according to the EIGE. In the European Commission serving until end-October 2019, just nine of the 28 commissioners are women, and that came only after President Jean-Claude Juncker implored national capitals to name female candidates.

Better Image
The numbers for national-government ministers in the EU are even weaker, with only 29% of posts assigned to women, according to the EIGE, whose data exclude the Sanchez cabinet in Spain.

Before that, Sweden was first in the female-ministers rankings, with 52%. At the other end of the spectrum, the Hungarian government includes only one woman — a minister without portfolio.

“There’s so much evidence that diversity contributes to better economics and to a better image for the EU,” said Hedegaard, the former European commissioner, who now serves on the boards of several Danish companies. “It’s strange that we are in 2018 and there are still too few women in leading positions.”