Good traditions – but looking towards the future – should be developed. The following is such an attempt, following on publications during the past years. On 11 March 2007, I had written about the origins of the International Women’s Day, related to the first all women’s strikes in the garment industry, in Lowell in Massachusetts/USA. What I consider worthwhile here is to think about the fact that the first strike of women textile workers, as described above, took place in Lowell/USA, now one of the three centers of Cambodian-Americans in the USA. And nowadays, Cambodian women textile workers are among the major workforce earning money for the country by the things they produce for export, while they are not much recognized for their role – and three of them have even been shot at during a recent strike in Svay Rieng.
Having read a lot of appeals made again at the occasion of this day – internationally and nationally, I decided to share information about a very practical experiment started by Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding of the European Union [EU] one year ago. She challenged business leaders to increase women’s presence on corporate boards, calling them to sign pledges abut what they actually do and not only say. And their responses would be published by March of this year. This was to be operated through specific, public declarations: “Women on the Board Pledge for Europe” on her official website.
She made this appeal after a meeting with business leaders on the role of women in decision-making, where she got the usual verbal assurances that everybody would surely make their best efforts.
This pledge represents a voluntary commitment by publicly listed companies to increase women’s presence on corporate boards to 30% by 2015 and to 40% by 2020. It is open for signature by all publicly listed companies in Europe.
“I had a first constructive discussion with business leaders to hear their views on increasing female participation in Europe’s boardrooms,” said the EU’s Justice Commissioner. “While some business leaders consider regulatory intervention – as seen in Norway, France, and Spain – as indispensable, others pointed to promising self-regulatory initiatives. Discussions between my services and representatives of the social partners showed similar positions.”
“Enhancing women’s participation in boardrooms can make companies more profitable and trigger sustainable economic growth.”
“For the next 12 months, I want to give self-regulation a last chance. I would like companies to be creative so that regulators do not have to become creative.”
“What counts for me is the outcome. My goal is to bring women’s presence on the boards of the major European publicly listed companies to 30% in 2015 and to 40% by 2020.”
New Commission figures presented today  show that only 12% of board members at Europe’s largest companies are women and in 97% of cases the board is chaired by a man. Progress over the past years has been very slow: the share of female board members in the EU has increased by just over half a percentage point per year over the last seven years. At this rate, unless action is taken, it will take another 50 years before there is a reasonable balance (40% of each sex) on company boards. In the meantime, public-listed firms in the EU keep losing out on female talent.
Member States and companies have taken various measures to address the situation, ranging from “soft measures” such as corporate governance codes and charters to legislative measures, such as gender quotas.
Not expressions of good-will, but numbers – one year later – should show what is really going on. The following are sections from the new European Commission report from 5 March 2012.
European Commission weighs options to break the ‛glass ceiling’ for women on company boards
A report published today  shows that limited progress towards increasing the number of women on company boards has been achieved one year after EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding called for credible self-regulatory measures. Just one in seven board members at Europe’s top firms is a woman (13.7%). This is a slight improvement from 11.8% in 2010. However, it would still take more than 40 years to reach a significant gender balance (at least 40% of both sexes) at this rate.
Gender balance in top positions has been shown to contribute to better business performance, improved competitiveness and economic gains. For example, a report by McKinsey [Women Matter: Making the breakthrough] found that gender-balanced companies have a 56% higher operating profit compared to male-only companies. Ernst & Young [Scaling up – Mind the (gender) gap] looked at the 290 largest publicly-listed companies. They found that the earnings at companies with at least one woman on the board were significantly higher than in those that had no female board member…
“One year ago, I asked companies to voluntarily increase women’s presence on corporate boards. My call was supported by the European Parliament and forwarded to business organizations by Ministers of Employment, Social Affairs and Gender Equality in many EU Member States. However, I regret to see that despite our calls, self-regulation so far has not brought about satisfactory results,” said Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission and the EU’s Justice Commissioner. “The lack of women in top jobs in the business world harms Europe’s competitiveness and hampers economic growth. This is why several EU Member States – notably Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain – have started to address the situation by adopting legislation that introduces gender quotas for company boards. Some countries – Denmark, Finland, Greece, Austria and Slovenia – have adopted rules on gender balance for the boards of state-owned companies. Personally, I am not a great fan of quotas. However, I like the results they bring…”
A growing body of evidence points to significant economic benefits from a better gender balance in economic decision-making. Having more women in top jobs can contribute to a more productive and innovative working environment and improved company performance overall…
Women ask more questions and are less willing to get into uncontrolled risks. That is why these companies make fewer mistakes.
Any plans to put a similar challenge to public institutions in Cambodia?
To achieve similarly positive results of significant economic benefits requires that women shall not hesitate to speak up and ask more critical questions, and that men at present in decision making positions shall learn more to listen to such questions.
Women speak up increasingly, but most notably in the public in relation to conflicts in the garment industry, and also when communities are faced with plans to relocate or to evict them – many women live up to their leadership roles.