07 March 2012

Women win one, lose one ... and so it goes

The good news is that the European Union is considering mandatory quotas to get more women on corporate boards. They have tried the voluntary approach and, as is so often the case, it hasn't worked. Currently only one in seven board members at Europe's biggest companies are women despite the fact that 60 per cent of university graduates are now women. The percentage of women chairing major companies has even fallen slightly in recent years, to barely three per cent.

More—many more—women are needed in corporate management for at least three reasons: to provide equal opportunity for women; to bring a more collegial, sympathetic approach to decision-making in organizations that now hold disproportionate power over people and the environment; and to create more successful companies (studies show that gender balance contributes to better business performance).

Despite the advantages of a healthy gender balance, women have trouble making inroads into the old-boys' clubs of business, just as they do in government. The macho atmospheres of these institutions create an often unspoken bias against women. If the EU takes affirmative action to reduce the bias, everyone, except perhaps a few undeserving men, will benefit.

Such progress is not to be made in Afghanistan, at least not if the mullahs have their way. The country's top clerics have declared in a statement that women are subordinate to men, should not mix in work or education and must always have a male guardian when they travel. The clerics denounced the equality of men and women enshrined in the Afghan constitution, saying "Men are fundamental and women are secondary."

An ominous note was that the statement associated the restrictions on women's rights with peace talks. MP Fawzia Koofi claims the two are being linked "all over the country" and warns the new rules are a "green light for Talibanization." Particularly disturbing is that the rules, while not legally binding, have been endorsed by President Karzai.

So while European women look forward to progress, Afghan women face a return to the status of chattel. Thus the world turns.

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