Filed under: Gender equality Social inclusion

I went on a study visit to Slovenia recently and was able to get some insight into how they’re working towards gender equality.

During the visit, we discussed how at the European Union (EU) level, women make up 35 percent of the European Parliament. Even if all these women take a clear stand on a particular issue, and even if all of them have the courage and support to stand behind their idea when it is not in line with the general opinion of their party, this still does not guarantee that their voice will be heard enough to influence decision-making in a positive way.

And that’s just in the Parliament, which has the authority to suggest policies, while the adoption and implementation of those policies are left to national governments and other EU bodies. At these levels, less than 35 percent of decision makers are women.

Why is it important to have women on board?

Number of women on boards - graph

As experience shows, women in decision-making change the quality of work and lead to better long-term results. They are good at recruiting allies, getting support from many sectors and creating and maintaining strong partnerships.

In this time of economic crisis, we need to set a good example while tackling our problems. Norway introduced a quota for women in the management boards of large enterprises. When the quota was voluntary, it didn’t have much impact. When the decision was made that each large company whose board was not at least 40 percent women would have to pay fines, the quota worked. And guess what? The financial situation and running of those companies has improved significantly since then. Research shows that there is a direct link between gender balance in managing boards and business performance.

This issue is currently on the agenda in the European Parliament, where a measure suggests that boards of large companies should be at least 30 percent women by 2015, and 40 percent by 2020. The Commission has said it may legislate to make quotas compulsory.

A positive example in Slovenia is the introduction of a quota of at least 40 percent women, or men, in all government bodies formed to make certain decisions. At the highest level, though, this is not applied.

Quotas seem to be key to change, and reaching certain goals, but implementing them is not so simple. This means the true participation of women, and having many who would work for the causes they believe in – not just putting women’s names on a list in order to abide by the rules.

What makes implementation so difficult, keeping in mind that in today’s Europe there are more women with higher education than men?

Women are often criticized for not being interested enough to reach the highest-level positions and that, even when they reach them, they don’t do much to encourage and support other women to do the same. Since women are a minority in terms of social power, they are occupying the space where a male model of behaviour is predominant.

In order to succeed in such an environment, they are forced to take on a male model of behaviour. When women are not a minority they would no longer need to compete like this. This requires parity between women and men – meaning not 30 or 35 percent, but 40 or even 50 percent in all decision-making bodies, in all structures, at all levels.

Why aren’t women motivated enough to occupy the highest positions? I think that women are generally forced to choose between family and career, and this must not be the case. This is not so hard to change, but again, women’s input is needed to make it happen. (See: Maternity protection in the context of work-life reconciliation)

Slovenia has some examples of how to help women balance career and family:

  1. They created early care centres and schools, where children can spend more hours a day as needed, and where they are served proper hot meals, so that parents don’t have to worry about their wellbeing during the day. This infrastructure was first financially supported by the Ministry of Education, and later gradually by the local municipalities.
  1. Many public institutions introduced flexible working hours, meaning that parents can go home earlier or take a few hours off to spend some quality time with their children, and make up for those hours by working from home in the evening when children are asleep.
  1. They’re working on changing the attitude that women are always the primary care-givers of their children by supporting fathers to be more included in family life. They are preparing a law which will provide men with three months paid paternity leave, which only they can use (meaning, this time off cannot be used by the mother). This also boosts women’s chances of getting a job by changing the perception that women are a more expensive labour force because of the paid maternity leave they take. This also releases women from pressure to be super women who need to manage both career and family life perfectly.

Looking again at a smart, inclusive, sustainable Europe – which Montenegro is working to be a part of – we cannot forget to use all of our nations’ knowledge and talents to reach these development goals.

And if so many women are left out, how can we succeed?

Do you know of other measures that have been successful in including women in decision making?

What challenges do women face in politics and business in your country?

Vanja Scepovic is Gender ProjectCoordinator with UNDP in Montenegro. >> See how UNDP supports women in decision making