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Gender quotas for company directors: A step to genuine equality?

On Tuesday the European Parliament endorsed a proposal from the European Commission to introduce a quota of at least 40% for each gender among non-executive directors in major European companies that are listed on stock markets. Should it be approved by the governments of EU member states the quota will fully come into effect from 2020.The fact that only a tiny proportion of the members of boards and senior management of major companies are women is a symptom of the systematic oppression and discrimination that women face under capitalism.

The Commission and the EU establishment will attempt to use this proposal to portray themselves as being in favour of equality and women’s rights. The reality is quite the opposite. Historically it was not the EU that delivered progress on equality legislation or other measures that benefited women. These rights were won following mass movements in the post war period across Europe. The period after the Second World War saw a mass influx of women into the trade union movement, who then got organised and fought for demands such as equal pay for equal work and for the provision of childcare and other family supports. These were not rights handed down by a benevolent EU.

Today, it is the austerity policies that are being pushed by the Commission that are having the effect of increasing the inequality between men and women. Public services that are more depended upon by women have faced huge cuts and have been the hardest hit with austerity. These proposals on gender quotas only deal with women in senior management of major companies. It is obvious that they will have absolutely no impact on the lives of the vast majority of working class and middle class women

It is argued by many of those in favour of quotas that increasing the number of women in parliaments, or as argued in this report before the European Parliament, in the boards of companies, will improve decision making. Although the macho-culture that is endemic amongst the capitalist elites may be somewhat impacted in their boardrooms or in the chambers of parliaments by a better gender balance, the reason the decisions that are taken are not fundamentally in the interests of women and working class people is that they are decisions taken, in the final analysis, in the interests of big business.

To hide the reality of this with quotas can serve to give a cover for the continuation of gender inequality, the pay gap and the well-documented disproportionate impact of austerity on women etc. None of which will be altered by more women in the boardroom per se With this illusion of equality the likes of the Commission would hope to quell some of the dissent and opposition to big business and capitalism.

Regardless of how many women participate in the decision making, unless this capitalist logic of maximising profit at all costs is ended nothing will fundamentally change. For example, successive Irish governments have implemented vicious anti women measures such as cuts to child benefit. The establishment political parties took these decisions not because the majority of them are men but because they politically agree with austerity and support cuts to social welfare and public spending. Female politicians like Joan Burton, have in fact been central figures in the implementation of such policies. Likewise on the question of abortion rights, the political establishment took 20 years to introduce the limited and insufficient X case legislation not because the majority of the Dáil are men but because of their unwillingness to challenge the Catholic hierarchy who have a privileged role in the Irish state.

Of course it is a very blatant insight into the patriarchal and undemocratic nature of the system that the Dáil and boardrooms are as male-dominated as they are. We need more women to be politically active at every level, and vitally, we need women politically active from a left-wing, anti-austerity, anti-capitalist perspective that offers an alternative to the status quo that is worsening gender inequality through austerity and is promoting a profiteering culture in which the sexist commodification of women and their bodies continues to promote the objectification of women – a culture in which violence against women endures at epidemic levels.

The Socialist Party is working tirelessly to develop the Anti Austerity Alliance (AAA) as a grassroots campaigning group. It has already selected a whole host of candidates throughout the country who are ordinary working class people who have become active against harsh austerity measures like the property and water taxes. In some areas, the majority of AAA candidates that have been selected are female, and women play a very prominent role in the AAA nationally, giving a glimpse as to how we can begin to make a change.

Fundamentally, gender quotas can’t and don’t change the underlying systematic discrimination and disadvantages built into this society – they simply paper over the growing inequality between men and women. In order to really increase equality we need to reverse austerity policies and invest in affordable childcare, decent maternity pay, paid parental leave for both sexes, pensions and welfare. Businesses must also be forced to implement family friendly working conditions. The struggle for these reforms must also be linked to a struggle against the capitalist system which perpetrates discrimination against women.

By Finghín Kelly


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