The European Commission is thinking about passing laws to force companies to hire specific quotas of women on their boards, saying that businesses have failed to make sufficient progress in gender equality over the past year.

Viviane Reding, the European Union's justice commissioner, says that at the current rate it would take more than 40 years for women to hold 40 per cent of board positions in Europe's publicly-traded companies.

"Quality comes only through learning and experience. Even when they have the know-how to be on the board they have never been given the opportunity because of an environment where women are considered not competent enough to take decisions … this has been the perception."

- Ranjana Kumari, a women's rights activist

On Monday, Reding promised to generate initiatives, including possible legislation, aimed at redressing the gender imbalance, saying: "I am not a great fan of quotas. However, I like the results they bring. I believe it is high time that Europe breaks the glass ceiling that continues to bar female talent from getting to the top in Europe's listed companies. I will work closely with the European Parliament and all member states to bring about change."

In the West or the developed world, about 30 per cent of senior positions are held by women.

This is almost double the figure in Asia, where women hold only 13 per cent of the top jobs.

But does this mean quotas actually work?

In countries that have already introduced quotas, 30 to 40 per cent of senior positions are filled by women.

"I don't think quotas are a good idea. I believe there should be quality not quantity. I very much believe in the empowerment of women but the problem is if you have a majority on the board and they become a silent majority that could be the worst thing that ever happens to women."

- Jo Sawicki, the CEO of Ceres

In Belgium and Italy, for example, 33 per cent of top jobs are held by women; it is 32 per cent in Spain; while in France almost 40 per cent of senior positions are allocated to women.

By comparison, countries that do not have quotas swing between the ends of the spectrum.

Houzan Mahmoud, a women's rights activist and blogger, says: "Having elitist women and women in high, decision-making positions doesn't necessarily mean that they can represent grassroots women. Having only 25 per cent of seats in parliament [in Iraq] doesn't mean that [the situation of] millions of women who have been suffering because of war, widowed, trafficked out of the country, who had to enter prostitution to provide a meal for their children because of poverty, inequality, lack of jobs and security, will change."

Given the overall scenario, are quotas the best way to help women make it up the career ladder?

Joining Inside Story with presenter Sami Zeidan to discuss this are: Jo Sawicki, a non-executive director at French biotech company Isocell and the CEO of Ceres, which conducts training for board members; Ranjana Kumari, the director of the Centre for Social Research and a women's rights activist; Patricia Rochford, the director of consulting company Rochford International and an executive search consultant; and Houzan Mahmoud, a women's rights activist and blogger.

"I hear a lot of women say that they make a contribution but because they speak a slightly different language they are not heard at first. You need to have a chairman or the senior independent director who is prepared to mentor women when they first come on board to make sure that when they do speak, they are listened to, that they are treated with respect and as an equal."

Patricia Rochford, an executive search consultant

The quota debate:

Supporters say the policy does not discriminate against men but compensates for existing barriers against women. They argue that once some women are appointed they become role models to other women, and that it is the most effective way of achieving gender balance in the workplace.

Critics however say the policy only serves as a handicap and works against equal opportunity for all by giving preference to women. It may also end up excluding people who are best qualified for a role. Some argue that women appointed through quotas are less respected and do not have as much clout.

Source: Al Jazeera