Like it or not, Europe's quota system puts women on boards

European countries forced large, public companies to give women a seat at the table. Now more nations are signing on.

Stephen Shankland
Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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6 min read

Jess Erickson, founder of Berlin Geekettes, attends one of her organization's meetings where women in the technology industry can find training, comradeship, mentors, career advice and jobs.
Jess Erickson, founder of Berlin Geekettes, attends one of her organization's meetings where women in the technology industry can find training, comradeship, mentors, career advice and jobs. Berlin Geekettes

This story is part of Solving for XX, a CNET special report exploring what people and companies are doing to make the tech industry more diverse, more equitable and more welcoming to women.

PARIS -- Diana Einterz knew she was about to meet some difficult customers.

It was the reason Equant -- now called Orange Business Services -- flew her from Atlanta to southern Germany. As senior vice president for customer service and delivery, Einterz had the authority to deal with disgruntled customers, and she felt ready to handle their concerns.

She just wasn't ready to take their drink orders.

"I was the only woman," says Einterz, now in Paris and promoted to executive vice president at the French telecom division. "They thought I was the assistant coming in to give them the coffee."

Those 25 men realized their mistake, she says, only after she fetched a chair so she could join them at the table.

That was a dozen years ago. Things are better in Europe now. Today, women make up a third of Einterz's thousand-strong staff. "That's still not high enough," she says.

By now, most people know the tech industry employs too few women. On average, women comprise approximately 30 percent of tech's work force, according to the diversity reports published by 11 of the world's largest tech companies, including Apple, Google and Microsoft. For comparison, women comprise more than half the general population of the US and Europe.


Opinions for that disparity vary. Some people say not enough women graduate with STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) degrees -- constricting the pipeline for new employees. Some cite unconscious bias of the sort Google Chairman Eric Schmidt displayed on a panel in Austin, Texas, when he continually interrupted US CTO Megan Smith, a former Google executive. Still others blame the tech industry's "bro" culture, which describes a kind of pack behavior of men behaving badly.

"The image of the 'brogrammer' culture reigns in technology," prompting women to head to other industries rather than "find themselves the only woman in the room with no senior female role models," says Anna Beninger, a research director at Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on women in business.

That may be why there are no women among the 12 employees at Traxens, a French startup that needs engineers who can work with sensors, software and online services. "Everyone agrees that the company would be a better place with more women," says marketing director Tim Baker, "but we have not had a single woman candidate as far as I know."

Leaving the issue of fairness aside, many studies show that companies with the greatest percentage of women flat-out perform better. Consulting group DDI, for example, found the best performing companies have more women in leadership roles. McKinsey & Co. and others report that businesses with women on their boards make better decisions and substantially outperform less-diverse rivals in profit, sales and return on investment.

Such studies have prompted many European countries to impose a solution that's almost unthinkable in the US: mandatory quotas on corporate boards. The European Commission has been considering a directive since 2013 that would force publicly listed companies to allocate 40 percent of their board seats to women. Germany last month passed a law mandating that its biggest public companies, including Bayer, BMW, Merck and Volkswagen, give 30 percent of their board seats to women by the beginning of next year.

Ja, sure

Norway, among the first to grant women the right to vote, in 1913, started the quota trend in 2003 with a law that threatened to shut down publicly traded companies unless women filled at least 40 percent of their boards. In reaction, 384 out of 563 public Norwegian companies chose to become private rather than comply with that law.

Despite that backlash, at least 12 other countries, including Australia, Canada, France, Italy, India, Israel and Spain have followed with their own quota laws.

Opinions on quotas and their effectiveness are mixed.

Quotas are "absolutely the last resort," says Denise Persson, chief marketing officer at Apigee, in San Jose, Calif., who spent most of her career in Sweden and France. "At the end of the day, it's about finding the most qualified person for the board."

Bodil Sonesson, vice president of global sales for security-camera maker Axis Communications, says she was "skeptical of the quota" until two years ago. That's when she became a board member at Tomra, a Norwegian company that makes sensor-using sorting machines for recycling, mining and food handling. She's now a quota convert. "Companies need to try harder [to find the right candidate]. Once you're there, it's up to you to do a good job," she says.

Even academics can't agree on the impact of quotas.

"The Norwegian experience reveals that a quota is the key to a successful implementation," concluded one report from the Institute for Social Research in Oslo in 2010. "Not only does it create the pressure needed for fundamental change but it also triggers a public debate at the core of which are questions of gender equality in wider society."

In their study "Breaking the Glass Ceiling?" economists from the University of Chicago, University of Texas, UCLA and the Norwegian School of Economics found that the biggest benefit of quotas was getting more qualified women on boards. But these women didn't help other women fill lower-level executive positions, add female-friendly workplace policies or inspire younger women to pursue their careers.

Not just about quotas

So quotas -- especially those that focus just on the highest corporate levels -- will push gender equality only so far.

Other efforts could be more effective. Orange Business Services, for example, voluntarily decided that at least one of every three final job candidates must be a woman.

Anka Wittenberg, chief diversity officer of Germany-based business software maker SAP, thinks there needs to be more emphasis on education so there are more qualified women to hire.

Diana Einterz, leader of Orange Business Services' large accounts in France.
Diana Einterz, leader of Orange Business Services' large accounts in France. Orange

"We need to give more interest into STEM education, especially in Europe," says Wittenberg. "For women, it's important to have an impact. Technology is the catalyst for change. This is where we make the world run better."

Wittenberg makes a point of reaching out to technically inclined women -- sponsoring hackathons, for example, at Berlin Geekettes, an organization with 1,800 women who work in information technology. That outreach is self-serving: "We want to make sure we can position SAP as an attractive employer to them."

Orange's Einterz believes one key to getting more European women in tech is for them to see more women in positions of authority.

And Persson, who hails from Sweden, thinks women will be treated more equitably -- and can focus more on their careers -- when both sexes have equal benefits and responsibilities for taking care of newborns.

Sweden offers among the most generous parental leave policies in the world. Parents get a total of 480 days of paid leave per child -- of which 60 days are reserved for dads. Swedish child care, meanwhile, costs just $150 a month, compared to an average of $1,369 per month in the US.

Fathers in Sweden frequently stay home as long as mothers do, often beginning their leave when mothers return to work. Dads took 24 percent of the total parental leave in 2012, according to the Swedish government. "When you hire someone, you know this man could stay home just as long as the mother could," says Persson.

Work policies like that undermine the old thinking that a woman's career lasts only as long as she's motherless. And that raises an interesting question: would a little role reversal level the playing field in technology?