Gender equality in the listed companies of 5 European countries

Gender equality is far, far away. We know it. Gaps are in all aspects of the working life of female professionals. At the base or when they enter the labour market. And at the top of listed companies.

Women in full-time employment are numerically less than men. But they surpass male percentages by a lot when it comes to part-time contracts. The gender pay gap in the EU stands at 13%. Women are less likely than their colleagues to get a promotion or a raise in salary. And, no matter the spread of initiatives and regulations that, in a few cases, impose gender quotas, the continent has yet to see a gender balance at the top of its firms. Even if, in the last few years, thanks also to legislation, a broader commitment to promoting gender balance is visible more clearly at the decision-making levels of companies.

A new research presented in June by the independent sustainability rating agency Standard Ethics confirms the situation at the boards of directors and executive levels. According to the study, the leadership in the biggest listed companies of the five Western European countries with the largest GDP and population is male-dominated. “Women continue to be the least represented gender within corporate governance bodies. Whether it be a role in the Presidency, the position of CEO or the Board of Directors composition, companies’ alignment with international standards is still far from satisfactory, despite a virtuous segment of best practice cases, whereby the least represented gender (namely women) occupies an equal number of Board of Directors and top management positions.”

100 companies from the five biggest European countries

The research, titled “The state of gender equality in major European listed companies“, considers the 100 (20 for each country) biggest businesses listed in the stock exchanges of Spain, Germany, France, Italy and the Uk.

Giving an overview of gender equality in these that are the five biggest markets of Europe, it has found that among the companies reviewed, 29% reached a balance in their boards’ composition, with France (at 55%) and Italy (45%) scoring above the overall value. UK and Spain follow (at 20%), and Germany stays a big step behind (5%.) Moreover, the study calculated that 16% of the examined companies have a female CEO or Chairperson, with Italy reaching the highest levels (35%) and France at the bottom (5%).

Numbers recorded aside, most companies haven’t yet adopted a specific policy to address the issue of gender imbalance at the top. Less than 5% of businesses published a Gender Equality Policy. But it has been noted that an average of 29% include binding rules of conduct on gender equality in their Diversity&Inclusion Policy. It happens in 40% of cases in Germany and France, 30% in Spain, 25% in Italy and 10% in the UK.

National legislations

Standard Ethics’s research indicates that “national legislation has exhibited a broad commitment to promoting gender equality. However, despite these efforts, significant studies are still required to address the existing gaps.” In fact, “Generally, the national markets analysed still tend to comply with the national legislations on gender balance.”

Clear examples of this are the Golfo-Mosca Law that introduced a 30% quota on the board of directors of listed companies in Italy in 2011 (then amended in 2019 to reach 40%.) The French Rixain Law, enhanced at the end of 2021, alongside gender quotas, both in the boards and managerial positions of large companies, aims to counteract through different intervention gender bias in professional training and higher education and to encourage women’s entrepreneurship by helping them access finances.

In Spain, the (preliminary draft of) the “Organic Law on Equal Representation of Women and Men in Decision-Making Bodies”, which already mandates companies with more than 50 employees to adopt and implement gender equality plans, aims to achieve a 40% female presence in the boards of all Spanish listed companies by July 2024.

In the UK, the voluntary mechanism FTSE Women Leader Review advises listed companies to ensure at least 40% of the least represented gender is among the elected board members by 2030. And lastly, German companies since 2021 are required by the FüPoG II Law (Zweites Führungspositionen-Gesetz) to appoint at least one woman and one man to an executive board with more than three members.

Takes and “What now?”

In conclusion, the study does not deny that “The current state of affairs necessitates a continued and concreted endeavour to advance gender equality within society and the corporate sector especially”. It underlines further how “The issue with definition also continues, with overall confusion in the different notions of gender balance and gender equality.”

But, at the same time, it also points to the interesting case of the Italian situation noting “a possible correlation between the achievement of gender equality in the board of directors and the appointment of a woman as CEO or Chairman. However, the results obtained shall be better analysed in further studies and through a broader sample.

Although this specific picture cannot be considered definite, it gives food for thought. It feeds the idea that intentional actions, especially if taken by role models that are still quite an exception, together with national plans of positive intervention, play a role in shaping the future step towards gender equality. There is no lack of female talent, skills or expertise. We need more long-term commitment and an increased speed for the change to happen faster. Well, and a broader commitment from a multitude of actors involved.

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