From Counting Numbers to Making Numbers Count

Notes from the 2016 Barnard College Global Symposium – Women Changing Europe

On March 18, we attended the inspiring Barnard College Global Symposium, Women Changing Europe. The symposium explored a variety of topics and panelists offered a wide range of perspectives on gender equality issues in Europe. The overarching theme was that current events in Europe are bringing about a crucial time for gender equality in the workplace. Summarized below are our key takeaways from panels focused on “Landscape of Leadership,” “Gender and the Fashion Industry” and “Workplace and the Family.”

Landscape of Leadership

Gender equality in the workplace has become a key issue for public policies. Although some European countries (Finland and Sweden) have been able to achieve positive results without resorting to gender quota legislation, some other countries have passed quota laws to help break the “glass ceiling.” In Italy, the “Golfo-Mosca” law requires that women represent at least one-third of the boards of publicly-listed companies. Alessia Mosca, Member of the European Parliament and drafter of the law, explained that the effect was immediate: the ratio of women on boards rose from 6% to 27% in only three years. She also mentioned that France passed a similar law in 2011, which, three years later, resulted in women representing over 30% of the members of the boards of the biggest publicly-listed companies.

These measures certainly helped women get a foot in the door of boardrooms. But panelists urged the audience to take a closer look at the actual roles of female board members. Are they only token members, a tick-box to avoid sanctions, or do they have actual power to make meaningful change?

According to several panelists, women rarely sit on the most important board committees. Professor Sucheta Nadkarni, Sinyi Professor of Chinese Management, Cambridge Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge, also indicated that quota legislation for board representation does not necessarily impact the number of women in senior management positions at companies. Yet women continue to work together to effect meaningful change.

In the UK, women in finance have been very much taking a bottom-up effort of just joining forces, coming together, which is very important. Gender diversity is not about counting the numbers, but making the numbers count.

As Réjane Sénac, a CNRS researcher at the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po, explained, we are now confronted with the legacy of “gender-based complementarity.” By justifying the inclusion of women to complement their male counterparts, she argued that we are trapped in a mindset in which women are not seen as equal to men. Ms. Sénac explained that, to break free of this way of thinking and achieve true equality, leadership positions should be awarded with regards to actual individual skills.

​​Gender and the Fashion Industry

​​Coco Chanel revolutionized the way women wore clothes and paved a new way for her brand, capitalizing on the changing times she was living in and her status as a fashion icon. She, among other icons like Jeanne Lanvin, Nina Ricci and Madeleine Vionnet, opened the door for many women to hold strategic positions at fashion and cosmetics houses. Over time, however, faces at the helm of couture changed. The CEO of Givenchy and the President of Sisley Cosmetics, both men, highlighted that the more diverse a company is, the more successful it is likely to be. In support of this assertion, they pointed to their own companies, which the CEOs described as thriving and expanding worldwide.

“We know from various studies that where women are represented on boards, companies perform much better,” said Frances Corner, Head of the London College of Fashion. “We have a moral responsibility as women to understand there are lots of women who don’t have our privileges, and if we don’t use our positions of influence as leaders to improve the situation for women across the world, then in a way we’re just piggying back on the other great advantages that we have already within Europe.”

​​Workplace and the Family

​​Work-life balance and equality is an issue common to both women and men, and was the final topic touched on by the panelists. They stressed that it is crucial that women and men have equal access to education, flexible work hours, parental leave, pay standards and positions of leadership. In fact, there is a need for greater advocacy from older men to younger ones regarding the value of a successful personal life, including fatherhood for those who chose to have children.

Although different countries are progressing at different rates, progress nonetheless is being made to address the gender gap. Panelists singled out France and Iceland as among the best places for women in the workplace and child-related benefits. Ms. Mosca said that Italy looked to Norway’s gender laws to improve equal representation on boards. She also said the focus on gender equality is extending to politics. Italy now has one of the highest percentages of women in parliament and government.

​​“If there’s only one woman in power, politics [will] change her, but if there are many women, they change politics.”​

Read more about the Barnard symposia series at: