Official Journal of the European Union

C 88/32

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the Representation of women in the decision-making bodies of economic and social interest groups in the European Union

(2006/C 88/09)

On 11 March 2003 the European Parliament decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 262 of the Treaty establishing the European Economic Community, on the Representation of women in the decision-making bodies of economic and social interest groups in the European Union.

The Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 24 January 2006. The rapporteur was Mr Etty.

At its 424th plenary session, held on 14 and 15 February 2006 (meeting of 14 February) the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 88 votes to 13 with 11 abstentions.

1.   Conclusions and recommendations


The EESC agrees with the European Parliament that the issue of stronger representation of women in the decision-making bodies of social and economic interest groups in the EU is an important one. It supports the appeal of Parliament to the national organisations concerned and to their European federations, as well as to the European Commission, to pay closer and more systematic attention to it. The Parliament called on the Commission to make a start on the compilation of data and the establishment of a database on the representation of women in the decision-making bodies of the economic and social interest groups in the EU. The Committee notes that the Commission has in the meantime begun this. It thinks that the European Gender Institute and the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions have a major contribution to make. As far as the indicators are concerned, it notes that the Commission is currently working with the nine criteria listed by the Italian presidency in 2003.


Parliament has concentrated its analysis mainly on employers' organisations and trade unions. It seems that more positive developments have occurred on the trade union side than would appear from the resolution and report. On the other hand, it would seem that to properly assess the situation and developments on the employers' side, as well as in other economic and social interest groups, a clear awareness is needed that the organisations concerned function in a different way to organisations with a membership of natural persons.


All economic and social interest groups represented in the EESC have their own characteristics. Policies which have a positive effect in one type of organisations will not necessarily have similar effects in others.


With this in mind, the Committee notes with interest the ‘framework of actions on gender equality’ advocated by the ETUC, UNICE/UEAPME and CEEP, and in particular the priority these organisations give to ‘women in decision-making’. It keenly awaits the announced annual national and European progress reports.


The EESC, like Parliament, subscribes to existing EU policies on the balanced participation of men and women in the decision-making process. The EESC agrees with Parliament that real political will must be shown in order to implement changes and achieve balanced representation. In many organisations, including those outside the circle of employers and workers, such political will is indeed being shown. The EESC recommends that all represented organisations make the results of their efforts available to the Commission on a regular basis and that the Commission, in close collaboration with the European federations, expands the above-mentioned databank and, following on from the Italian presidency's 2003 initiative, establishes appropriate indicators for strengthening the influence of women in social and economic decision-making bodies.


The key level meriting special attention in organisations which send representatives to national and international fora and, where appropriate, to the social dialogue, is quite clearly the executive level. However, it is also important for organisations which wish to help strengthen the representation of women to target the policy preparation level, from which many organisations now also recruit their delegates.


Separate and auxiliary structures as well as networks of female staff and members have contributed significantly to positive change in some organisations. While such instruments will not necessarily be a panacea at all times and in all cases, the EESC thinks it worthwhile to promote them further and more widely, including with an eye to the external representation of the organisation.


Training/education and work/care arrangements appear to be the most adequate policies to enhance women's careers in the organisations concerned. The promotion of such policies by the relevant Commission departments, which have been developing measures for combating discrimination and strengthening and mainstreaming gender policy, remains a top priority. Employers organisations and trade unions have an important role to play here.


Quotas are recommended by many experts. Quota arrangements, which, in some countries, have proven to be effective both in politics and in social organisations, should be explored thoroughly with regard to their effectiveness and success by the organisations concerned and the Commission.


The Committee would be pleased to see a target of 30 % for the under-represented sex in the nominations to the EESC made by Member States (proposed by the economic and social interest groups) for the 2006-2010 EESC mandate, with the view to raising this target to 40 % for the following mandate.


The EESC will revisit the findings of the present survey in 2006/2007 after the renewal of its four-yearly mandate. That will also be an opportunity to see whether or not the policies and practices of organisations in the new Member States differ greatly from those in the old Member States. The Committee suggests that Parliament then also review the situation against the background of its 2002 resolution and report.


2.1   Background


In January 2003, the European Parliament requested the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) to give an opinion on the representation of women in the decision-making bodies of the ‘social partners’ (1). The intention was for the EESC to supplement the statistical data available to Parliament when it prepared its resolution and report on ‘Representation of women among the social partners of the European Union’ (2002/2026 INI), and to give recommendations about the strategy to follow to raise the representation of women in the different bodies of these ‘social partners’.


In its own resolution, Parliament had observed that ‘women are underrepresented in the organs and structures in which the social partners consult each other about social policy’. It states that programmes and strategies are required if a more balanced representation is to be achieved. Parliament calls upon the European Commission and on the social partners to systematically compile relevant data and to take appropriate action in order to increase the influence of women in social and economic decision-making bodies, not only by better representation in these bodies, but also by incorporating the gender dimension into their policies.

Parliament stated in this context that non-binding declarations of interest are inadequate and that real political will is required inside the organisations where the social partners meet in order to implement changes and to achieve balanced representation.


In its resolution and report, Parliament did not address the EESC.


The EESC is the most representative assembly of representatives of social and economic interest groups (‘organised civil society’) in the EU. Whereas its task is not to advise the represented organisations on their policies regarding women representation in decision-making bodies or on their gender policies, its composition can certainly be seen as a partial reflection of these policies. It is one of the organisations mentioned by Parliament where social and economic interest groups meet and one of those organs and structures in which they consult each other about social policy. Its members can therefore be expected to be good sources for the type of information and advice requested by Parliament.

2.2   General comments


The EESC agrees with Parliament that the representation of women in the decision-making structures of the EU's social and economic interest groups is an important issue. It also shares the view that a better statistical basis and more information on the policies of these organisations are important preconditions for the implementation of EU policies on the balanced representation of men and women in the decision-making process.

It notes that the European Commission has begun to collect relevant data, and has since made a start on setting up the database called for by Parliament and establishing the indicators for increasing the influence of women in social and economic decision-making bodies in the EU. The Commission asserts, however, that it is difficult to obtain data on the relevant interest groups. It is to be hoped that the European Gender Institute will be able to help with this in future, as the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions is already doing.

In addition to this, the Commission should continue to develop general policies to widen the scope for greater participation of women in decision-making, such as policies to combat continuing discrimination at the workplace and to improve the work/life balance in the EU Member States, as well as policies to promote equal treatment and equal opportunities at work.


The EESC broadly supports the requests and demands made by Parliament to employers, workers and organised civil society as a whole in the EU. It has addressed most of them in a survey, based on a questionnaire, which in 2003 was sent to all of the (then) 222 members (2). This questionnaire was completed by 107 members, which brings the response rate to approximately 50 % (3).

The response was fairly evenly distributed over the three groups in the EESC: 34 % for Group I (Employers), 31 % for Group II (Employees) and 34 % for Group III (Various Interests).

The percentage of female representation in the EESC at the time of the survey was 23 % (4).

Organisations with a high percentage of female representatives among their members are probably slightly over-represented among the respondents. This may have led to a somewhat biased, ‘woman-friendly’, overall picture.


The questionnaire focused in turn on the type and character of the organisation represented, its leadership structures, representation in national and international organisations and fora, the presence of women in the organisation, and gender policies.


Furthermore, existing data were studied, provided by a hearing on the situation and experiences in Belgium, Spain and the Scandinavian countries, and by members of the EESC. This data concentrated predominately on the trade unions. As in Parliament's resolution and report, the factual basis for assessments with respect to employers was weak, and hardly any information on other organisations was available (5).


The survey and the additional material taken into account reinforced the initial impression made by Parliament's resolution: a) that the statistical basis is, indeed, very narrow; the only exception being the trade unions, but in this case the data fail to fairly reflect positive developments which have taken place in the recent past (6), and b) that it is not easy, if not problematic, to compare findings on different organisations, e.g. organisations with a membership of natural persons (such as trade unions) and organisations which themselves have organisations (such as enterprises) as members. Different organisational characteristics (e.g. in farmers' or SME organisations) may require different ways of assessing whether there is a balance in the representation of men and women. It must be observed, too, that a low representation of women in decision-making bodies is not necessarily proof of the absence of gender policies in an organisation.


One point of criticism of the EP resolution was that it focused on quantitative aspects of representation only, ignoring the qualitative aspects of policy-making in organisations where women sometimes play a bigger role than their formal representation would suggest. While these aspects are certainly important, the EESC has decided not to address them in depth. It has, however, included the representation of women in policy-preparation bodies. The qualitative aspects of policy-making in this sense merit more attention from the social and economic interest groups and their European federations, but also from Parliament and the European Commission.


In looking at the relevant policies and practices of social and economic interest groups in the EU, the EESC has chosen to analyse representation policies in an integrated way (national and European level — including the social dialogue — and international level).

European works councils were not included in the survey. That would have required a major separate research effort, for which others are better equipped that the EESC (7).


The Committee would refer to the framework of actions on gender equality of 1 March 2005 drawn up by the ETUC, UNICE/UEAPME and CEEP, in which the promotion of women in decision-making is one of the four priorities.

2.3   Specific comments (based on the results of the survey)


Almost half of the two basic types of organisations represented in the EESC (umbrella organisations of different types on the one hand, and organisations based on individual membership on the other) have a high ratio of female membership (40 % or more). Only 10-15 % fall in the low female membership category (0-19 %). Overall, the represented organisations have a 36 % ratio of female membership. (N.B.: as stated above, the percentage of female membership of the EESC was 23 % at the time of the survey).


The women in these organisations are most likely to be found in the policy-making staff, less frequently as delegates to the organisation's congress or in the management team, and least of all on the executive board.


This is probably one major explanation for the relatively low percentage of female membership of the EESC, as many female members are from executive boards.


Those organisations scoring high on sending female representatives to the EESC draw them from their policy-making staff, or they have other types of arrangements (e.g. a mixed one), rather than draw representatives exclusively from the highest internal decision-making level.


As regards representation in national or international fora, organisations prefer a mixed arrangement. Here, representation by executive board members ranks second.


Many of the organisations represented in the EESC do not participate in the Social Dialogue Committee (about one quarter). Of those who do belong to this Committee, about one third use a mixed form of representation or send representatives from management.


One of the policies for obtaining a more balanced representation of women in decision-making bodies, as identified by Parliament, is the setting-up of structures for women within the organisation. At the same time, Parliament comments that these structures often remain limited to a symbolic gesture or an isolated discussion forum. Therefore, according to Parliament, such structures ‘must not isolate women from the decision-making process but, on the contrary, integrate them in that process and enable them to progress’. The Committee endorses this view.

Parliament also makes the point that mentoring and networking within organisations by women is highly important in preparing them for leadership positions.


Only a minority of the organisations in the EESC (33 %) whose representatives completed the questionnaire have a separate or an auxiliary organisation for female members. In almost all cases, these structures are represented on the executive of the organisations, and about half of them have other channels for influence in the organisations. In 15 % of cases female policy-making staff and members have formed a network; 4 % have both (i.e. separate/auxiliary organisations and networks).

Separate organisations and networks can be found mainly in organisations belonging to Group II (i.e. trade unions): between about 50–75 %. In Group III, the range is between 19-39 %, and in Group I this phenomenon is significantly less common, 6-19 %. Auxiliary organisations are not uncommon in farmers' organisations (33 %) and are found in about 10 % of consumers' and health organisations.


As regards policies to enhance the career of women, in particular to prepare them for leading positions, 46 % of the respondents reported that their organisations had such policies. Most popular policies were training (26 %), facilitating work/care arrangements (22 %) and monitoring/benchmarking (19 %). However, only one quarter of organisations have these forms of career enhancement.


Special attention to female workers and staff is also evidenced by the collection of statistics on the presence of women in the organisation. Nearly half of the organisations represented (48 %) reported that they kept statistics, and most of them say that they update them annually (67 %).

Group II organisations are clearly most active in this area (well over 50 %), followed by Group III organisations (approximately one third). Percentages are low in Group I. Here, we see a remarkable discrepancy between the very low level of reported statistics collection (1 %) and reported policies for career enhancement (11 %).


Success was reported by respondents in 75 % of the 61 cases where policies to enhance women's careers are in place. 40 organisations have a department or an official in charge of gender policies, and in half of these cases staffing is in the order of one full time equivalent.

Success in terms of more female employees in senior positions was reported in 49 % of cases; in 46 % a result in terms of more women in policy-making positions was reported.


Gender policies are common in trade unions (Group II) (68 %); Group III organisations score 25 %; and Group I, 5 %.


A number of organisations (33 members) stated that the questions on policies to enhance women's careers and gender mainstreaming were not relevant to them.


The male/female ratio in representation of organisations in the EESC appears to be strongly related to the ratio found for representation at the international level, much less to that for the social dialogue, and not at all to the male/female ratio for representatives in national fora.


Taking into account the fact that Group I respondents put the male/female ratio for their organisations at 70/30 %, their male/female ratio in the EESC is relatively high (35 %), and significantly higher than the corresponding figures for Group II (25 %, with a male/female ratio in the organisations' membership of 60/40 %) and Group III (27 %, 65/35 % respectively).


The survey shows that the male/female ratio of leadership in organisations largely determines the male/female representatives to the EESC (cf. points 2.3.2 and 2.3.3 above). Parliament has called on the social partners (the social and economic interest groups) ‘to review their representation mechanisms and selection procedures, to give centre stage to a balanced representation of women and men and to inscribe it in their constitutions’ (8).

In the survey, the EESC has addressed the type of recruitment procedures for management with a view to the male/female ratio on executive boards. Co-option came out as the most disadvantageous for women, followed by nomination by affiliated organisations. Procedures with more positive effects as perceived by respondents were mentioned by too few of them to provide a firm basis for conclusions.


Relating the average ratio of male/female representation in decision-making bodies to various policies to enhance women's careers resulted in the finding that only target figures seem to result in the strong representation of women. Dual candidacy and quotas (which figure strongly in the policy discussions of political parties in the EU) were rarely mentioned by respondents.

Brussels, 14 February 2006.

The President

of the European Economic and Social Committee

Anne-Marie SIGMUND

(1)  In subsequent contacts, the concept of ‘social partners’ was clarified as to include not only employers' organisations and trade unions, but also other social and economic interest groups as represented in the EESC.

(2)  See ‘Report on balanced decision-making in the EESC’ (J. Oldersma, N. Lepeshko, A. Woodward), VUB Bruxelles/Leiden University, September 2004, available (in English only) on the webpage of the EESC's Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship: http://www.esc.eu.int/sections/soc/docs/balanced_decisionmaking_eesc.pdf.

(3)  When two or more persons representing the same organisation completed the questionnaire, these responses have been treated as one.

(4)  After enlargement (in May 2004) this percentage has gone up slightly to 26 %.

(5)  Though on two occasions in 2002, UNICE provided Parliament with more data than were finally included in this document.

(6)  E.g., between the early 1990s and the early 2000s, the share of female participants in ETUC Congresses rose from 10/12 % to 30 %, in the Executive Board it is now 25 %, in the Steering Committee 32 %. Affiliated organisations can show positive change as well; most have, for instance, women's departments nowadays.

(7)  The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions has carried out a study of European works councils (‘European Works Councils in Practice’, 2004). This comprises a number of case studies. The enquiry showed that, with a few small exceptions, the representation of women was not an accurate reflection of the composition of the workforce. This is probably due to the composition of works councils in the companies concerned at national level.

(8)  PE 315.516, A5-0279/2002.


to the opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee

The following text from the section's opinion was deleted when the Plenary Assembly adopted the proposed amendment, but received more than a quarter of the votes cast:

Point 1.8

‘Quotas are recommended by many experts. This does not mean, however, that they are recommended for economic and social organisations. Nevertheless, it is recommended that this instrument, which has proven to be politically effective in some countries, should be further explored by the organisations concerned and the Commission.’


For: 42

Against: 55

Abstentions: 8.