Progress in closing the global gender gap has been slow but European countries remained the top performers, according to a report published today by the World Economic Forum. It comes amid an intense debate in the European Union about how to improve the representation of women in both the public and private sectors.
Some 82 out of 132 countries saw economic equality between men and women improve between 2011 and 2012, the report found. Almost all countries made progress on education and health but only 20 per cent did so on political empowerment. Nordic countries were best at closing the overall gap.
However, globally "progress has been slow, with only nine countries having improved by more than 10 per cent over the past seven years and 75 having improved by less than 5 per cent", the WEF, which carries out the study annually, said in a statement. Syria, Chad, Pakistan and Yemen came out worst in the rankings.
EU countries dominated the top 20 places. Finland, Sweden, Ireland and Denmark were ranked in the top 10 while the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Latvia, Luxembourg, the United Kingdom and Austria were also highly-placed. Non-EU nations Iceland and Norway were in first and third place respectively, while the lowest placed EU member states were Greece in 82nd – down from 56th a year ago – and Malta in 88th. Greece's decline was primarily because the proportion of women holding ministerial positions dropped from 31 per cent to 6 per cent.
Three of the world's top four economies – the United States, Japan and Germany – made progress over the last year, though they all fell down the list slightly. China slipped backwards. The study said that countries that had been most successful at closing the gender gap were also the most economically competitive.
Reducing disparities between men and women has been an "important driver of European economic growth in the last decade and closing this gap would have massive economic implications for developed economies", the report said. It claimed further progress could see gross domestic product in the eurozone boosted by 13 per cent.
The founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, said: "The key for the future of any country and any institution is the capability to attract the best talents. In the future, talent will be more important than capital or anything else. To develop the gender dimension is not just a question of equality; it is the entry card to succeed and prosper in an ever more competitive world."
The report comes a day after a vote in the European Commission on planned legislation to impose a quota for women on corporate boards
was postponed until November, because of opposition within the EU executive and legal concerns about its implementation.
The controversial proposal, piloted by commission vice-president Viviane Reding, would force companies to reserve 40 per cent of non-executive seats for women by 2020. On Twitter, Reding said she would "not give up" and that Europe had a "lot to gain from more diverse corporate boards".
Hannes Swoboda, leader of the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament said it would be "sad and regrettable" if the legislation could not move forward because of "pressure from business and prejudice". Green MEP and equality spokeswomen Marije Cornelissen said quotas were a "key measure for redressing one of the major outstanding barriers to gender equality in Europe".
"Women are still grossly under-represented on the boards of large European companies, with the share of women in the highest decision-making bodies of the largest publically-listed companies at a mere 14 per cent," Cornelissen said. "This is not because of a shortage of qualified women, with 60 per cent of university graduates in the EU being women, but because the voluntary approach has unfortunately failed."
But Conservative British MEP Marina Yannakoudakis said: "It is clear that quotas imposed by the EU are unwanted and unworkable. I hope that commissioner Reding will take the hint: member states don't want quotas, the commission doesn't want quotas and I know many members of the parliament don't want quotas. Let's put a stop to this quota nonsense once and for all, and talk about the real issue of supporting diversity in business."
Meanwhile on Monday the European Parliament's economic and monetary affairs committee refused to back Luxembourg's Yves Mersch to fill an empty seat on the executive board of the European Central Bank in a protest over gender balance. There are currently no women on the ECB's board or governing council.
Committee chairwoman Sharon Bowles said MEPs were "objecting to the EU's most powerful institution being run only by men for the next six years". The recommendation will be voted on in the parliament's full plenary session later but its decision is not binding and Mersch's appointment is likely to go ahead anyway. It was stressed in the committee that Mersch's credentials were not being questioned.