Cracks in the glass ceiling?


Joanna Maycock, Secretary General of the European Women’s Lobby speaking at the launch event


The European Women’s Lobby (EWL), the largest network of women’s rights associations in Europe, recently launched its most recent progress report on women on boards in Europe, Cracks in the glass ceiling or just a trick of the light?, at a vibrant and engaging launch event supported by the Permanent Representation of Italy to the European Union.


  1. ‘We have to smash the glass ceiling together’ – Monika Ladmanova, Advisor on Gender to Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality Věra Jourová

  2. ‘There is a need for male champions of change’ – Dennis Abbott, Managing Director Communications, Burson-Marsteller Brussels

  3. ‘Macho culture and old boys’ clubs making decisions over our heads are dangerous for our democracies’ – Joanna Maycock, Secretary General of the European Women’s Lobby

  4. ‘It’s time to lock arms…this is a systemic problem and has to be looked at holistically’ – Professor Linda Scott, DP World Chair for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.

About the report and EWL’s vision

The report shows that overwhelmingly, the most effective way to increase the representation of women in decision making positions – and in this case, on company boards – is through binding legislation with regular monitoring, intermediary targets and strong sanctions. While some countries (such as Iceland, Norway, France and Italy) have taken the lead and introduced legislation along these lines, Europe as a whole is dragging its feet and making progress that is all too slow. The very latest data shows that just two out of ten board members in Europe are women.

2015: Wake-up call

2015 is a highly symbolic year for women’s rights as it marks 20 years since the Beijing Platform for Action, a fundamental human rights instrument for women and girls adopted in 1995. Two of the Beijing Platform for Action’s strategic objectives were to “take measures to ensure women’s equal access to and full participation in power structures and decision making’ and to “increase women’s capacity to participate in decision making and leadership”.

Directive on women on boards

Significant progress has been made since 1995, and especially in the area of women on boards. Inspired by best practices, the European Union has realised that greater action at the EU level is needed in order to bring about the higher representation of women in positions of economic power. In 2012, a directive was proposed with the aim of attaining a 40% gender balance on non-executive boards in large, publicly listed companies across the EU. While this directive is currently being blocked by a small number of member states in the Council of the EU (Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia, the Netherlands, the UK, Germany and Spain), newly appointed Commissioner for Gender Equality, Vera Jourová, has committed to seeing the directive passed by the end of 2015.

Why quotas?

The case for binding measures to ensure the empowerment of women in leadership position has never been stronger. Firstly, parity is essential in order to take the opinions, needs and wishes of both women and men into account at all levels of decision making. Secondly, diversity among employees and board members produces creativity and innovation through complementary knowledge and skills. Thirdly, there is a strong economic case for increasing the proportion of women on company boards; a range of studies from various national contexts demonstrate that companies with a higher share of women at top levels financially perform better. Fourthly, it is clear that self-regulation as a means of achieving parity is simply not effective. Where self-regulation and voluntary targets have been introduced, progress – if there has been any – has been painfully slow.

Key recommendations in the report

  1. Binding measures must apply to both executive and non-executive boards

  2. Further action is needed to increase proportion of female CEOs

  3. Effective measures require regular monitoring and intermediary targets

  4. Measures must be enforced with firm sanctions

  5. Quotas must be introduced as part of a comprehensive policy package that seeks to address the fundamental causes of women’s under-representation in economic decision making

EWL’s vision


European Women’s Lobby is the largest network of women’s rights associations in Europe


It is clear that a change of system is needed: competitiveness, selfishness and the dichotomy of winners and losers have created a system of pervasive inequalities. The European Women’s Lobby invites decision makers, member states and companies to make a choice: to stick with a failed system or to commit to a sustainable future based around collaboration and creativity, where leadership takes on a new meaning and all people, women and men, are included equally in decision making processes. The EU directive on women on boards is one important step towards this transformative change and should be implemented without further delay.


Marion Sharples, (above right) Policy Assistant, joined EWL in September 2014 and divides her time between policy, specifically in the area of women in economic decision-making, and fundraising. Prior to joining EWL, she worked in Bogotá, Colombia, teaching at the National Pedagogical University of Colombia, and volunteering at the Colombian chapter of Transparency International. She has previously worked at the UK chapter of Transparency International and the UK section of the Global Poverty Project. Having left EWL in February, Marion intends to return to education later in the year and read for an MSc in Gender and Development Studies.

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