Please note: This is a guest contribution by Barbara Unmüßig, President of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.
Equality for all human beings is a core principal and Leitmotif of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1949 and manifested in many national constitutions. Due to the lack of equal political participation of women quotas were implemented over the last years – by developed and developing countries in order to improve women’s political participation. Empirical evidence shows that it is a powerful and successful tool.
Quotas, according to Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, UN Women, have had a positive effect on increasing women’s involvement in politics. Out of the 59 countries that held elections in 2011, 17 of them had legislated quotas. In those countries, women gained 27% of parliamentary seats compared to 16% in countries without quotas. In 17 countries a woman is head of government. More than ever, but it’s not enough.
Despite all progress: The under-representation of women at all levels and in all nations is scandalous. Only one-in five parliamentarians in the world are today women. Worrying statistics, worrying for the democratic principle of full representation of more than 50% of the world population. It is a lack of political will. Where quotas are in place – in countries so different like Sweden or Rwanda – the representation of women in national parliaments are in high ranks. Hitherto hardly known, but Rwanda is leading the world statistic with 45 of 80 seats in parliament taking by women, due to a strong quota system. For comparison: United Kingdom alongside with Pakistan holds place 57th in the international rankings with a female representation at 22.5%. Germany for example holds place 24 with 32.9% female parliamentarians in the German Bundestag. This is only due to the fact that the opposition parties implemented successful quota systems. Chancellor Merkel’s ruling party, the conservative CDU holds only about 20% female representatives. Quotas matter, no doubt about it.
Despite of some progress the presence of women in economic decision-making in many countries is even worse compared to the political sphere. The European Commission released in January mid-term figures on the share of women on boards in publicly listed companies. These figures show an increase in the number of women on boards to 15.8%, up from 13.7% in January 2012 and 8.5% in 2003. Again it is crystal clear – countries with quota legislation remain the motor of change. In Italy and France where quota laws where recently adopted the progress is tremendous. France has become the first EU country to have more than one woman on the top-level board of all of its largest listed companies. In France, women now represent 25% of the French stock market index company boards, CAC 40 – a 2.8 percentage point increase in just 10 months!
In Germany, no such legislation exists so far. But all opposition parties are campaigning for it. Germany’s upper house, the German Bundesrat, currently with majority distributions in favor for the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and the Green Party, voted in 2012 to force big companies to fill 40% of the positions on their supervisory boards with women. This decision marks a blow to Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition which is so far only in favor for voluntary quotas. The initiative of the Bundesrat will offer a fresh opportunity to get Germany to comply with European Commission’s plans to set a minimum objective of 40% of the under-represented sex in non-executive board-member positions in listed companies in Europe by 2020, or 2018 for listed public undertakings. (The European Commission’s proposal however now needs to be adopted by the European Parliament and by the EU Member States in the Council.)
Quotas are a necessary prerequisite for full equal political and economic participation, a powerful tool to overcome the glass ceilings, experienced by so many skilled women over decades now. It is apparent that voluntary quotas don’t work, but regulatory pressure does. As a matter of equality and democracy quotas make a huge difference.