The spectre of quotas for women in the boardrooms of listed companies moved a step closer this week, with the European Commission launching a new five-year strategy for gender equality.
The strategy is based around five key priorities: getting more women into the job market; equality in senior positions; promoting female entrepreneurship; equal pay (women earn around 18% less than men across the EU on average); and tackling gender-based violence.
Speaking at the launch of the strategy in Brussels, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding hinted that legislation might be necessary to force large companies to address the lack of women in senior positions.
"I have not been an advocate of quotas for women in senior business posts in the past, but given the lack of progress in this area, we might in the future have to consider taking initiatives at the European level," she said.
"I plan to meet with the chief executives of major publicly listed European companies in spring 2011 to discuss the situation and the scope for determined self-regulation. Depending on the outcome of this dialogue with industry, I will consider whether or not further initiatives will be necessary in 2012."
The European Women's Lobby (EWL), the largest umbrella organisation of women's associations in the European Union, welcomed the suggestion of quotas.
EWL secretary-general Myria Vassiliadou said: "Progress towards the equal representation of women and men in decision-making has been frustratingly slow, and we are very happy to see the Commission taking the lead and considering the introduction of binding measures to change this. We hope this will also apply to the public sector, starting with the European institutions themselves."
An annual "gender equality dialogue" will assess the implementation of the strategy, comprising stakeholders from the EU institutions, European social partners and civil society.