Gender & Equality: A view from the EWLA and review of their 16th Congress

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In November the European Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) celebrated its 16th congress. This year’s theme was “The Key Role of Diversity to Strengthen the EU”. The event took place at the premises of KPMG in Luxembourg.

Monika Ladmanova, who advises EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumer and Gender Equality Věra Jourová on gender equality and non-discrimination matters gave the keynote speech. Her speech dealt with the “Strategic engagement on gender equality 2016-2019: Where are we?” She talked about the proposal for a work-life balance directive for a broader approach to address the underrepresentation of women in the labour market. According to the European Commission “this new initiative takes into account the developments in society over the past decade in order to enable parents and other people with caring responsibilities to better balance their work and family lives and to encourage a better sharing of caring responsibilities between women and men.” EWLA is preparing an advisory opinion on the proposal. Ms Ladmanova also mentioned the opportunities for women that are related to the digital transformation. EWLA, under the leadership of one of its presidium members, Antonia Verna, is conducting a legal project for more women in technology.

Ms Ladmanova’s keynote was followed by three panels. The first panel was dedicated to “Women’s sustainable impact on economic growth from the point of view of the private sector” with testimonials from the female CEOs of banks, fund organisations and audit and consulting firms based in Luxembourg and Switzerland. All panellists agreed on the need for more diverse boards. Interestingly, there was no consensus between the panellists on the importance of quota laws. Panellist Simone Stebler from Egon Zehnder demonstrated with statistics that only quota laws that are put into effect provoke change within corporations. EWLA was a cooperation partner of the shareholder activist project European Women Shareholders Demand Gender Equality (EWSDGE). The aim of EWSDGE was to achieve gender balanced leadership in companies. The project, mostly funded by the European Commission as well as the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (BMFSFJ), the Ministry for Justice and Equality of Saxony-Anhalt, the Finnish Chamber of Commerce and the German Women Lawyers Association (djb), ran from 16th of May 2014 until 15th May 2016. The idea is a simple, yet effective one: the EWSDGE project visited Annual General Meetings of the EURO STOXX 50 index companies as well as a selection of the BUX, SOFIX and FTSE 100 companies during the first half of 2015, submitting a questionnaire to supervisory boards for detailed information about the representation of women in leadership positions of their companies (executive and/or supervisory board, but also other management positions) as well as about the companies’ overall activities and achievements in relation to promoting women’s careers (for example, accelerated women’s management programmes). One of the recommendations of EWSDGE is the need for more ambitious legislation and policies at a European and national level such as binding gender quota legislation that is combined with sanctions.

The second panel focussed on the “Promotion of diversity in public and corporate entities” with lessons shared from start-up hubs to multinationals through experience of their corporate social responsibility policies and their commitment to promoting diversity and gender equality, notably with awards and mentoring to build best practices with their employees, clients and stakeholders. All congress participants could witness the very challenging goal of Vodafone which is to be the world’s best employer for women by 2025. Director General Personnel at the European Investment Bank, Cheryl Fisher, encouraged the audience not to focus on other women or other people’s lives, in order to allow different life models, such as fathers who stay at home and mothers that are having their professional careers, to develop. Expert in inequalities issues including gender policies of the University of Luxembourg, Dr. Anne Hartung, insisted that bias starts at a very early age and the whole society has to make the effort to overcome its own stereotyped thinking. In 2016, several EWLA board members had issued proposals for the transposition of the CSR Directive into national legislations. Many of the recommendations that were presented by the speakers of the second panel coincided with the different national proposals for the transposition of the CSR Directive by EWLA. One of these proposed recommendations was to create mentoring programs, as they are an effective tool to promote and further the careers of women. Mentoring programs can help women, who are in leadership positions or who have the potential to take over leadership duties, by facilitating the exchange of experiences and knowledge, to establish contacts in more senior managerial levels and to expand their network. These programs also provide the opportunity to enhance an individual’s leadership and methodical skills.

The last panel dealt with the topic “Innovation and women empowerment”. This panel showcased talent innovation in entities such as chambers of commerce and law firms that encourages diversity and women initiatives to advocate the exchange of know-how and best practices, notably through awareness raising on behalf of stakeholders. Paul Schonenberg, Chairman and CEO of the American Chamber of Commerce in Luxembourg and strong supporter of diversity explained to the audience his 10% rule. In his opinion all employees need to have 10% of free time once a week in order to dedicate the free time to whatever she or he wants to do. Applying this rule for a 40 working hours week would mean that an employee would have 4 working hours free and at his or her own disposal. In Mr. Schonenberg’s opinion this 10 %-rule could help to create flexible working time models.

Jean Schaffner, partner and head of the Luxembourg tax practice, Allen & Overy, (also founder of the Ladies In Law Luxembourg Association (LILA)), Véronique Hoffeld, managing partner at Loyens & Loeff, Luxembourg, and president of the board of directors of the National Research Fund (FNR) of Luxembourg and Mathilde Ostertag, tax local partner with GSK Stockmann, shared best practices from their law firms. EWLA would like to be a supporter within this challenge and find solutions to bring more gender diversity to the boards of law firms.

Gabriela Tennhard, senior manager at KPMG and founding member of KPMG Diversity Luxembourg on Women Tax Club, shared insights on how the consultancy was tackling the challenges of gender diversity within its own corporation. One solution was the founding of a women tax club which is also open to men.

After this very inspiring day, EWLA closed its 16th congress with many new ideas and new partners and looks forward to developing its gender and equality work in 2018.

EWLA is registered in Belgium as an international non-governmental, non-profit, association (Association Internationale Sans But Lucratif). It is a federation of national women lawyers associations from amongst the European Union countries and those of EFTA countries. Members of EWLA are also individual women lawyers and academics from these countries. EWLA pursues the co-operation of European women lawyers, in order to combine their specific expertise in monitoring law and politics seen from the angle of fundamental rights, and in particular gender equality.

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