Today's overwhelming European Parliament backing for a 40% quota for women in the boardroom was a landmark for gender equality in Europe.
It has sent a clear signal that boardrooms can no longer be boys’ clubs.
The European Commission put the proposal on the table in November 2012. At its heart lies a reasonable requirement – 40% female representation among non-executive directors in publicly listed companies by 2020. This is accompanied by guidelines about how to achieve this in a clear and transparent way.
This will not mean anyone getting a job just because they are a woman. Nor is it about breathing down the neck of businesses. It is about stopping people being crowded out of boardrooms because they are female.
We want recruitment based on clear criteria and a comparison of the candidates' skills and qualifications. This is fair both for the business world and for women – who have the same right to pursue careers as men.
Some say this should be left to voluntary action. They argue that, given time, businesses will tackle this issue on their own. But increases in female representation have happened at a snail’s pace in many EU countries.
At the current rate of progress, it would take until 2050 to get even close to gender balance in Europe’s boardrooms (that is to say, at least 40% of each gender). Company boards remain dominated by one gender. 83% of board members and 97% of boardroom chairs are male.
There is clear evidence that proportionate legislation is the best way of accelerating progress. The most rapid advances have been in countries such as France, Italy and Denmark, which have introduced legislative measures.
Germany’s prospective coalition partners announced earlier this week a 30% quota by 2016 for the proportion of women non-executive directors.
These countries are the motor of change. They have understood that if they want to remain competitive in a globalised economy they cannot disregard women. More and more companies are competing to attract the best female talent.
Yet representation for women at the top level remains the exception rather than the rule in Europe. This is all the more shocking given that 60% of graduates in the EU are female, and the proportion of women in work has risen steadily to 62% – up from 55% in 1997.
Since 2000, women have taken three-quarters of the new jobs generated in Europe. But this is not being reflected in the top positions.
We believe today's vote is good news for the UK, where women occupy 18.5% of board places. That is slightly above the EU average. But it is hardly equality of opportunity. Yes, the glass ceiling in many companies has been raised, but it is still there, nearly as tough to crack as ever.
Our economies carry the burden of this. Gender equality at work is not just a women’s issue, but an economic imperative.
While there are signs of tentative economic recovery in the UK and some other countries, the challenges of an ageing population, falling birth rates and increasing skills shortages will not go away.
Europe – Britain included - will not meet these challenges without capitalising on the talent and skills that women offer.
The European Union has been a pioneer for gender equality. From equal pay to workplace rights, we can be proud of progress over the last few decades.
Today's vote was another major step.
But for the proposal to become EU law, we will also need national ministers in the EU Council to back the 40% “quota”.
Will those ministers support MEPs, directly elected by European citizens, in helping advance gender equality in Europe?
Or will they drag their feet on the false basis that equality in multinational businesses can be tackled at national level, in isolation?
Will they send a strong message that 21st century boardrooms are no longer the realm of ‘old school tie’ networks? Or will some still argue that so-called ‘cultural changes’ will happen by themselves?
Today's vote means decision time for national governments is approaching fast.
Viviane Reding is European Commission Vice-President and Justice Commissioner, and Mary Honeyball is a Labour MEPReuse content