Gender inequality is one of the most primitive and oldest forms of inequality. Sadly, it is still very much a reality in most parts of the world. In many countries women do not have equal access to education, healthcare, safety, work or political decision-making.
In Belgium, the battle against gender inequality is fought using the controversial instrument of quotas, in politics, business and beyond.
In the political world, quotas ensure that parliament truly reflects the population it represents. When a parliament consists only or mainly of men, it becomes very hard to gain broad support for political decisions, and to demonstrate that every citizen can be elected.
It is unacceptable that political leadership is still very much a predominantly male privilege. According to Phumzile Mlambo- Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, it will take another 50 years to achieve gender equality in the political sphere at the current rate of change. Patiently waiting for that to happen is not an option. Tough measures are needed, and quotas for women in parliamentary meetings is the most important one.
Over the last 15 years, Belgium has introduced legislation governing increasingly ambitious quotas. The pioneering Tobback- Smet Act led to an increase in the proportion of female members of parliament from 16% previously to 25% in 1999 (Chamber of Representatives). Under this act, political parties were required to fill at least a third of their electoral lists with members of the under-represented gender group, in this case, women.
Following the implementation of stricter legislation governing quotas, the Chamber of Representatives saw the percentage of women rise to 38% by 2007. This new legislation dictated that the difference between the number of candidates from each gender on every electoral list a party submits should not exceed one. Furthermore, the first two candidates on the list should be of the opposite sex. Since then, the percentage of female representatives has risen further, and in 2014 women made up 41% of the Chamber of Representatives, 44% of the Flemish parliament and 50% of the senate.
For comparison, the equivalent figure is 43.6% in Sweden, 42.5% in Finland, 14.4% in Turkey and 9.5% in Japan.
Gender equality is not just a problem that affects politics, but concerns the business world, too. Research has shown time and again that the more female managers a company has, the more profitable it is. Economy and society have every interest in tapping all the talent in their midst.
Quotas in the business world can put an end to the “old boys” networks and ensure that qualified women are no longer denied access to management positions because of their gender. The quotas are by definition temporary measures, aimed at eradicating an inequality that has built up over time. Once that is done, the quotas will be lifted in accordance with the principle of equal treatment as it is interpreted by international courts of human rights.
Since 2011, quotas have applied to listed companies in Belgium. By law, executive boards of listed companies (depending on their size and other particularities) must consist of a minimum of a third and a maximum of two-thirds of members of one or other gender by 2017 or 2019. In the run-up to the statutory deadline, Belgian companies are stepping up their efforts to adopt gender equality policies. The majority go the extra mile not to waste women’s talents and are examining why women all too often fail to climb the career ladder. Meanwhile, most directors are satisfied with the results of the quotas, which have brought fresh blood on to executive boards without affecting quality.
Belgium still scores below the European average, with women making up 16.7% of the executive boards of (large) listed companies, compared to 17.8% in the EU as a whole. While marked progress is expected in the years ahead, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels as far as gender equality is concerned. The proportion of female professors in Belgian universities, for instance, is a shockingly low at 10%.
Quotas help rectify women’s under-representation in prominent positions, and make it entirely normal for women to take up managerial roles in the political, economic and academic systems.
Encouragingly, the quotas have even had the opposite effect. In some constituencies in Belgium, for instance, political parties are struggling to find enough suitable male candidates to fulfil quotas. In the end women and men are equal after all.
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