Public Affairs Networking
Female representation still lacking in European companies, think tanks, policy institutes

The election of a new European Parliament this month and the subsequent appointment of a new European leadership present an opportunity to improve gender representation in EU leadership positions, writes Corinna Hörst.

Europe could certainly benefit from a more diverse political elite. At one level, female representation in leadership positions may not appear to be that much of a problem in Europe. After all, Germany has a female chancellor, eight women now sit in the newest Italian cabinet, and nine female commissioners are at the helm of the European Commission. The first high representative for foreign and security policy is a woman. And female members constituted 35.8 percent of the European Parliament, higher than in any European member state.

However, only 29 percent of European companies have at least two women on their executive committees. And when looking at the institutions surrounding governments and public administration, such as think tanks and public policy institutes, there are no binding provisions for equal gender representation. Men still generally dominate public policy debates and discussions, particularly in the areas of foreign and security policy. In part, the problem lies with how policy topics are framed. It does not take a radical feminist theorist to tease out the gendered nature of the terms “hard power” and “soft power,” and the implicit hierarchy assumed between the two. Hard security and statecraft feature at the highest levels of think tank and policy events more frequently than a host of other “soft” topics such as public health, climate change, energy security, urban policy, international aid, cultural diplomacy, and education. It is no coincidence that these topics tend also to feature more female perspectives.

Perhaps it is time for the policy community to take a cue from the corporate world. In the private sector, the correlation between gender balance in the leadership and corporate performance is obvious. Many business leaders argue that companies must have diverse personnel for two reasons: to ensure that their work force represents, and therefore understands, their target markets; and to encourage a diversity of perspectives that lead to creative tension and innovation. Over the past decade, many multinational corporations have created chief diversity officers to ensure sufficiently diverse workforces. Sixty percent of U.S. companies have at least two women in executive positions. Several successful multinational corporations including IBM, PepsiCo, Lockheed Martin, and General Motors, have female chief executives.

Europe could also learn from the United States’ experiences. U.S. President Barack Obama mandated in 2008 that all federal bureaucracies adopt diverse and inclusive hiring policies, and that this agenda be reflected in government policies themselves. Women continue to break into senior leadership positions in U.S. think tanks and policy institutions. Of the top 50 think tanks in the United States, eight are headed by women, and female membership on their governing boards is between 16 and 30 percent.

This past weekend’s European Parliament elections may actually see some changes for the better. In November 2012, a campaign was launched to achieve gender balance in European decision-making. Political parties were encouraged to compose their electoral lists to ensure more gender parity, and member states have been urged to nominate equal numbers of male and female candidates for top EU positions. Such efforts could lead to real and lasting shifts not only in terms of institutional leadership and workplace policies, but in crucial elements of the policy agenda. While women are increasingly visible in elected offices, this does not always translate into real positions of decision-making power — or improve the diversity of the think tank, policy institutions that inform or advise these policy makers and whose staff comment on political affairs.

The same arguments in favor of diversity that have taken root in the private sector should now apply to the policy sector. Steps could include institutional reforms to equally value operational and intellectual leadership, a review of laws regulating candidate recruitment and promotion processes, training and mentoring that improves the skills and resources of women in the pipeline for higher positions, and reforms of rules and internal procedures to improve working conditions and operational principles. As demographic changes remake political constituencies, the policy agenda itself must be recast in ways that reflect the demographics of society writ large — or policy advisors will appear increasingly irrelevant to their audiences.

Corinna Hörst is the deputy director of the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank. The GMFUS first published this article as part of its Transatlantic Takes series.


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