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Janine Milne

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Gender politics: woman losing out in the UK, but on top in France

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UK women’s grip on positions of power in politics and public life is slipping away dramatically, claims a report.

Sex and Power: Who Runs Britain? by Counting Women In, a coalition of five organisations including the Fawcett Society and Hansard Society, found damning evidence of British women losing representation across politics, the judiciary, police, media and other areas.

In 2010, Britain was 60th out of 190 countries in female representation in the democratic system, a massive drop from its 33rd position in 2010. Only Italy and Ireland had a lower percentage of female legislators in western countries than the UK. 

The picture in the police and local government was equally stark: 90% of chief constables and police and crime commissioners are men, while two-thirds of local councillors are male

Government’s record is also poor. Within Westminster, the number of women in the cabinet has dropped by 4.3% and is at 10-year low, while the proportion of women in MPs has increased by only 3.9% since 2000. Altogether, women account for 22.5% of MPs, 12.3% of council leaders in England and 17.4% of the cabinet.

The situation in the European parliament was also damning. The UK has only 22.5% women representatives – third from bottom, and below countries such as Serbia and Slovenia.

The report makes a number of suggestions to improve representation in politics, including the introducing quotas and a government campaign to increase the number of women standing at the next general election.

French on top 

Meanwhile it’s been revealed that France has usurped the United States as the country with the greatest number of women board directors in the 200 largest global companies, as quota legislation begins to pay dividends.

The average percentage of women directors among Fortune Global 200 companies is only 15%, according to a study by Corporate Women Directors International (CWDI). But in France, a quarter of directors are women, boosted by quota legislation introduced in 2010, found the report. In comparison, the highest percentage of US women directors was 20.9%, while in the UK, which like the US does not have quotas,16% of FTSE 100 board members are women.
 
"France has raised the bar for other countries interested in opening up corporate boardrooms to women," said Irene Natividad, chair of CWDI. "The dramatic increase in the number of women now serving on the boards of French companies shows that it is possible to do this at a quicker pace as long as there’s a plan to do so."
 
Those countries which have imposed government quotas have begun to produce impressive results. Alongside the recent success in France, Norway reached its 40% mandate for women on boards in 2008 after introducing quotas in 2003.
 
Spain, the Netherlands, Iceland, Italy, and Belgium have also introduced quota laws and have begun to reap the benefits. Spain, for example, has increased representation of women from 1.9% to 12.7% and Italy from 1.8% to 9.3% since 2004.
 
Outside Europe, Malaysia will reach its quota by 2016. Altogether, there are 18 countries using this strategy, including the United Arab Emirates. 
 
Many countries reluctant to introduce quotas have found another way to tackle the issue. Finland now has 22% of board seats filled by women by including gender and board diversity in its corporate governance code. So far, 17 other countries wary of using quotas have adopted a similar policy.
 
No proactive 
 
But the United States, China and Japan – the three countries which make up 104 of the world’s 200 largest organisations – did not have proactive strategies and had the lowest percentage increase in women board members. 
 
"Quotas work," said Natividad. "Inserting gender diversity into corporate governance codes works. What doesn’t work is assuming that women will rise to board seats ‘naturally’, and therefore do nothing." 
 
A European Commission draft directive calls for there to be a minimum of 40% non-executive directors on the boards of listed companies with 250 or more employees by 2020. Currently, 85% of European non-executive board members and 91% of executive board members are men. 
 
The directive was endorsed this month by the European Economic and Social Committee, the advisory body which advises the Commission on the socio-economic impact of new legislation. It said in a statement: “The EESC recognises that quotas are not the ideal method to achieve real gender equality; however, in the current context, they are the most effective instrument to balance the existing disparities.”
 
But the UK is among a cadre of European countries opposed to the idea of using quotas, pointing out that gender diversity is improving of its own accord. 
 
According to government figures, the number of Britain’s largest publicly quoted companies with all male boards has dropped from 21 to seven over the last two-and-a-half years. The number of women on FTSE boards has hit a record high of 16% in recent years, but ministers are aiming for at least 25% representation. This figure comes from the 2011 Davies Report, which called for UK companies to voluntarily increase board representation of women to 25% by 2015 or face government measures.
 
Support for this view comes Cranfield School of Management research last year which suggested 36.9% of directors could be women by 2020, exceeding the 25% target.
 
But in a BBC interview last year, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said that it would take more than 70 years to reach gender balance in the UK’s boardrooms.
 
In January, Business Secretary Vince Cable contacted the seven FTSE 100 companies without women board members and urged them to diversify their board representation. Ministers have already called on firms to aim to have one woman director for every three men by 2015. 
 
Only two FTSE 100 firms currently have women chief executives: Burberry and Imperial Tobacco.
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