What the U.S. Can Learn From Europe About Gender Equality in the Workplace

Last week newspapers in the U.S. trumpeted President Obama's pick for the Supreme Court. If he has his way, a record-breaking three of the nine justices of the nation's highest court will be women. Women's judicial groups are cheering — even the conservative ones.

But the compelling drama of a third of the Supreme Court seats being female masks a disappointing story of stalled progress. Women now make up more than half of the workforce, yet despite a huge dependence on their earnings — a dependence which only deepened during the recession — American women have little to show for it. New data from the Center for Work-Life Policy demonstrate that while 47% of college-educated entry-level corporate professionals are female, women comprise a mere 21% of senior executives, 17% of Congress (PDF link) and 15% of board directors.

It's no different on the other side of the Atlantic. Women in Britain too, comprise only 19% of Parliament and hold down only 12% of seats on corporate boards (PDF link). They still get paid substantially less than men, and their careers — and earning potential — are far more likely to be derailed by childcare and eldercare responsibilities.

Some forward-thinking companies, recognizing and wanting to reap the rewards of a rich female talent pool, have implemented programs that promote and sustain women on their way to the top. But no matter how laudatory, these programs are outliers and the women who take advantage of them the fortunate few. What's needed to truly enable all women to exploit their full potential is something far more pervasive, something that becomes the law of the land.

Shockingly — because we don't associate Conservatives with radical change — the new coalition government is proposing exactly that. David Cameron's party has wrapped its Contract for Equalities in the language of individualism and choice to appease Tory sentiment, but the great surprise is that his 16-point manifesto has real teeth. Among other measures, he has committed to:


  • Drive positive discrimination in Britain's boardrooms. Half the slate of candidates would have to be female and any company which had a board made up of fewer than 30% women would have to set out what steps it was taking to remedy the situation.

  • Introduce legislation requiring any employer who loses an employment tribunal case on grounds of gender pay discrimination to undergo a compulsory pay audit covering the entire company.

  • Reduce discrimination against working mothers by ensuring that both fathers and mothers are able to share 12 months of parental leave in whichever way suits them best.

  • Extend the right to request flexible working to all parents of children under 18.

  • Fund a targeted national enterprise mentoring program for women who want to start a business.

Cameron's commitment on this front has been reinforced by his alliance with the Liberal Democrats, who support a remarkably similar set of goals. In addition to equal pay audits for companies with more than 100 employees, shared 12-month parental leave, and the right to request flexible work, the Lib-Dems also call for name-blind job application forms to stop gender and ethnic discrimination.

The new British government is not alone in its fierce commitment to gender equality. Across Europe, governments seem determined to drive real results on this front. In France, Nicholas Sarkozy is pushing a bill (which is expected to pass) that will force large companies to reserve 40% of their boardroom seats for women. Quotas ensuring a minimum level of female representation in boardrooms were already introduced in Norway in 2003 and in Spain in 2007, and the Netherlands is presently mulling similar legislation. Germany's Angela Merkel recently introduced Parent Pay to incentivize a sharing of childcare responsibilities between women and men. In Germany the private sector has also stepped up to the plate: Deutsche Telekom has established a quota (30% of board seats assigned to women), and Daimler has set the goal of gender parity by 2020.

This isn't just a case of fair play. Gender equality has been proved to have solid economic benefits. Research conducted by both Catalyst and McKinsey & Company (PDF link) demonstrates that companies with significant numbers of women in management have a much higher return on investment than companies that lag on this front. In addition, a study from London Business School (PDF link) shows that when work teams are split 50-50 between men and women, productivity goes up. Gender balance, the research argues, counters groupthink — the tendency of homogenous groups to staunchly defend wrong-headed ideas because everyone in the group thinks the same way.

As Europe struggles to break out of the recession, its governments seem to have finally figured out that helping women break through the glass ceiling is one of the surest routes to economic success.

There are more than a few lessons the Obama administration can take from this. Despite an often-stated commitment to the health and well-being of working women and their families, the agenda of the current administration appears to lack teeth. Where are the quotas, targets and new legislation that drive real change across organizations? Without these actions the administration's statements of support for women will just be hot air.

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