EU commissioner Viviane Reding
EU commissioner Viviane Reding: 'We can achieve anything we set our minds to, but the first step is believing in ourselves.' © Getty Images

Viviane Reding is the first EU Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, a position she has held since 2010. Before entering politics, she worked as journalist in Luxembourg and studied for a PhD in human sciences at the Sorbonne in Paris.

In November 2012, Commissioner Reding issued a call to action to address the gender imbalance on company boards in Europe, and proposed an EU target of 40 per cent female non-executive directors by 2020. This recently received strong backing from the European Parliament and a plenary vote on the women quota will be held on Wednesday, paving the way for further progress of the draft law in the EU legislative process.

1. What do you hope the procedural quota system you are currently working on will achieve?

The European Commission’s proposal will help smash the glass ceiling that still too often prevents women from progressing in their career. The new EU rules focus on a transparent and fair selection procedure rather than a fixed quota. They would set a minimum objective of 40 per cent for the under-represented sex in non-executive board positions in listed companies by 2020, or 2018 for listed public undertakings. The reasoning is simple: no woman will get a job just because she is a woman, but no woman will be denied a job simply because she is a woman either.

2. Under what conditions do you think it would be necessary to introduce fixed quantitative quota system for women on boards?

Seeing the progress that EU action has already triggered – without the proposal even having become law yet, I am confident that fixed quantitative quotas will not be necessary. In fact, since 2010, when the European Commission published its Strategy for Equality between Women and Men and first raised the prospect of targeted initiatives to address the underrepresentation of women in decision-making positions, the share of women on boards has risen by 4.8 percentage points [from 12 per cent to 17 per cent] at an average rate of 1.9 percentage points a year – almost four times the rate of progress from 2003 to 2010 (0.5 percentage points a year). This acceleration has been further fuelled by the women on boards proposal adopted by the European Commission on November 14 2012.

Regulatory pressure works. The cracks are starting to show in the glass ceiling. More and more companies are competing to attract the best female talent. If this successful development continues and is even further reinforced once the commission’s proposal becomes law, then I believe the talk for quantitative quotas will no longer be necessary. That’s also the reasoning of our proposal. It has an expiry date: 2028, when gender balance will hopefully have improved and legislation will no longer be needed.

3. What are your thoughts on Norway, where the board quota for women has not been as successful as first hoped?

I think there have been very interesting experiences at national level in different European countries, both within the EU and in countries such as Norway or Iceland. Looking at the figures – with Norway having 45 per cent women on supervisory boards and Iceland even 49 per cent – one thing is clear: progress is really only visible in countries where some form of legislation has been introduced. In the EU, the example has been set by countries such as France and Italy, which have adopted legislation recently and are starting to record significant progress.

4. If Europe introduces a quota system for women on boards, do you think other countries, such as the US, will follow?

Given our record in improving the situation for women in Europe over the years, I have no doubt that we can inspire other countries to try to break the glass ceiling for women in business leadership. Look who has recently been nominated to head the US Federal Reserve: Janet Yellen, who is set to be the first chairwoman of the Fed. This proves awareness is also growing in the US that women have a strong sense for price and financial stability. Women are good for business.

5. Why do you think Europe is taking the lead in this?

Gender equality is one of the founding principles upon which our union is built. It is enshrined in the EU founding treaties of 1957 and it is part of Europe’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, the EU’s own bill of rights. For us, gender equality is not an “option”, it is not a “luxury”, it is an imperative, it is a European achievement and I think we should be proud of it.

6. What do you think business schools need to do to help improve the number of women on boards?

Business schools are filling the pipeline with female talent. I have often heard the following argument from companies: “Yes, we would like to hire more women, but we cannot find them.” This is wrong. Qualified women exist. Through the Global Board Ready Women initiative, business schools have joined forces to shatter this myth and make female talent visible: 180 business schools in 70 countries have drawn up a list of board-ready, highly qualified women. Recently, the initiative established a partnership with the Global Association of Executive Search Consultants, which has mandates from companies all over the world. This is an excellent start for putting the database in to use and establishing the link between academic institutions (who know the candidates) and business (who are looking for the candidates).

7. How do you think business schools can increase the number of women enrolling on their programmes?

Successful alumni should go out and speak to prospective students about their experiences and achievements. Helping to recruit the class that comes after you is a necessary investment because candidates do not only need to hear how great a programme is, they need to hear that women are getting great jobs after that programme. In an academic environment that focuses so much on building a career network, having approachable predecessors is key.

I also think women should be offered a helping hand at the beginning. Many elite programmes have struggled with the image of being an “old boys’ club” and the stereotypes associated with it. Today there are more and more initiatives to help female students better adjust to business school. There are, for example, special recruiting events for women organised by some business schools, including lunches between prospective students and a female executive. Just like in the workplace, women need encouragement in the business school environment.

8. How do you deal with male-dominated environments?

I was lucky in that female politicians were rare when I started out, and I could use that to my advantage to get a foot in the door. But then, as with every position, you have to prove your worth and it is competence that wins in the end. In Luxembourg, politicians are elected with a tick in the box next to their name. You can only convince with competence.

When I became commissioner, I saw that being a woman could actually turn out to be a big advantage. As Commissioner for Sport, I negotiated the transfer rules for young football players with Fifa. It came as a surprise to Fifa and Uefa, as they had never negotiated with a woman.

As telecoms commissioner, I had to negotiate with the big – and exclusively male – telecoms chief executives about lowering roaming charges and mobile termination rates. You can well imagine that these men had never had to negotiate with a woman before. In the beginning, they didn’t take me very seriously. The result: when they woke up everything was done – they won’t be making that mistake again!

9. What are your future plans?

I still have one more year to go as the first EU justice commissioner: pushing through a strong and uniform data protection law for Europe, getting the women quota adopted and implementing a strong “justice for growth” agenda are only a few of my projects. I do my work as EU commissioner with great passion. Shaping Europe’s future and making a difference in people’s lives is something I would not want to miss. Failing is not an option for me. Plan B is to work on plan A.

10. What advice would you give to women in business?

Just do it! We can achieve anything we set our minds to, but the first step is believing in ourselves.

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