When Josef Ackermann, Deutsche Bank’s chief executive, said this month that women would make Deutsche’s management board “more colourful and more beautiful”, it was more than a patronising remark.

His words gave ammunition to proponents of quotas in a heated debate about the lack of women representation on supervisory and executive boards all over Europe.

Regulators are starting to lose patience with companies’ scant progress in changing a traditional management model that for decades has hamstrung women from moving to the top.

In several countries and at European Union level, the introduction of a legal quota – a compulsory measure hated by many managers and even by a lot of female executives – has become a hot topic.

Advocates of a quota point to separate studies conducted by McKinsey and the UN, both showing that companies with the most women are doing better than rivals in terms of profitability and/or share price growth.

They also point to Norway and France, where quotas for female non-executive directors are in place.

Viviane Reding, European commissioner, recently threatened to impose quotas on the biggest 500 listed groups if they did not move faster on diversity.

“We are not talking here about …smaller businesses but the biggest 500 listed companies. Here, fewer than 3 per cent on their supervisory boards are female. Of [chief executives], only one out of 10 is female on the boards. I am persuaded profoundly that gender balance is a question for society,” Ms Reding told the Financial Times.

At a meeting with the heads of 15 large companies on March 1, she wants them to present concrete suggestions on how to foster gender diversity in Europe. In Germany, Angela Merkel, chancellor, last week called the lack of women in management a “true scandal”, adding that companies had a “last chance” to make progress before binding commitments would be put in place.

In the UK, a government inquiry due out this week will recommend that by 2013 a fifth of directors in the FTSE 350 should be women. In Norway, a law forced listed companies to have women make up 40 per cent of their boards from the beginning of 2008. After initial scepticism that there would not be enough competent women to fill the supervisory boards, many investors and executives today regard it as a success. The law laid bare a previously unused potential of female managers and spurred the emergence of “golden skirts” – women who work full-time as non-executive directors.

In January, France’s parliament became the latest country to set a quota for women on the boards of large listed companies. Under the new legislation, large companies must reserve at least 40 per cent of their boardroom seats for women by 2017. Ben Verwaayen, chief executive of Alcatel-Lucent, a telecommunications equipment maker, says: “It is yesterday’s discussion – quotas will be a reality. I would not personally have voted for them but whether it is a law or a recommendation it does not matter. It is simply something you have to adjust to.”

Indeed, the signs are there that quotas or similar measures could loom in a number of additional countries in the next few years.

Italy’s lower house of parliament last year passed a law prescribing a 30 per cent female quota for the boards of all listed companies. The law, nicknamed the “pink quota”, has not made it to the Senate yet.

In Germany, Ms Merkel rules out the immediate introduction of a quota but backs a proposal that would force companies to give themselves individual targets. She and other senior politicians are pointing to a self-commitment by corporate Germany a decade ago that led to minuscule changes. Last year, only 2.2 per cent of executive board members in Germany’s blue-chip Dax 30 index were women, data from DIW, the German institute for economic research, showed.

Unlike a quota, which would restrict companies’ flexibility, a voluntary target would be welcomed by investors and at least some managers. Ines Kolmsee, chief executive of speciality chemicals maker SKW Metallurgie and the only female head among Germany’s largest listed companies, calls the idea of individual, sector and company-related targets “appealing”. She says: “This Damocles sword of a possible quota is giving this issue a push – much more than actual regulation would do as companies would only seek to find ways to bypass the rules.”

Reporting by Daniel Schäfer in Frankfurt, Nikki Tait in Brussels, Peggy Hollinger and Jennifer Thompson in Paris, Rachel Sanderson and Giulia Segreti in Milan and Brian Groom in London

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