- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2012

While the number of women in the corporate boardroom has been slowly rising in recent decades, some argue that the free market still needs a strong nudge from the government to shatter the glass ceiling.

Building on laws and regulations in a number of individual European states, the administrative arm of the European Union is an a “period of consultation” on a proposal to impose quotas for women on corporate boards throughout the economic bloc, citing in part studies showing that companies with more women in the boardroom are more prosperous and competitive. Companies that fail to measure up would face fines or other, unspecified penalties.

“I’m not in favor of quotas,” EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding told reporters recently. “However, I like the results they bring.”

Some hope - or fear - that the trend may be heading to this side of the Atlantic. With a fight breaking out last week between a Democratic strategist and Republican candidate Mitt Romney over the proper role of women in the workforce, the issue may get a higher profile as the presidential race heats up.

Proponents of accelerating the number of corporate board slots for women point to a 2007 survey by the nonprofit research group Catalyst, which describes its mission as “expanding opportunities for women and business.” The report found that the Fortune 500 companies with the largest percentage of female board members posted a 13.9 percent higher return on equity than their peers.

“I wouldn’t say that quotas don’t work, only that they’re not nearly as well received here in the U.S. as [they are] abroad. I would love to see them more,” said Maria Peqa, senior director of entrepreneurship and economic development for Vital Voices, an international nongovernmental organization that helps women become leaders and entrepreneurs.

“If the current rate of women’s incorporation of boards is left to happen organically, we’ll be here for another 3,000 years,” she said. “In general, if [quotas] work, we should allow them to work.”

“When women have a chance to work as full and equal partners, economies prosper,” said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress.

Norway is widely considered to have the industrial world’s most progressive approach to gender equality in the corporate hierarchy. On a recent Washington visit, Rikke Lind, deputy minister from the country’s Ministry of Trade and Industry, attributed much of Norway’s economic success to a 40 percent gender quota placed on all of the nation’s publicly traded companies in 2003.

Despite the cost of enforcing the quotas and policing the market, “it is worth the money,” she said.

Christina Sommers, resident scholar for the American Enterprise Institute, said mandating women in the boardroom though quotas or other coercive means would create the same backlash that such programs have created in other fields.

“If we’re going to be burdened by all sorts of political constraints, we will not have the benefit of highly expert and focused corporate leadership [and] our companies will suffer,” she said. “There is a place for women on boards, there are women qualified, and I think that a company that doesn’t take advantage of that will be harming themselves.”

Companies “should go for the best person,” she said. “If that’s a woman, then by all means take her.”

A numbers game

Although women make up more than half of the population and almost 49 percent of the U.S. labor force, the numbers give a mixed picture of their presence in the corporate boardroom. According to Catalyst, women’s share of the total board seats at Fortune 500 companies has risen from 14.6 percent in 2006 to 16.1 percent last year.

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