EPN Report on ACCA Event

“Fighting inequality and supporting diversity: Europe’s big challenge?”

ACCA President Debate-In association with the Irish Presidency of the Council of the EU

5th of March 2013, Bibliotheque Solvay, Parc Leopold, Brussel

The European Professionals Network (EPN) participated in the high-level 2013 President’s debate organized by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) in Brussels last 5th March. ACCA, in association with the Irish Presidency of the Council of the EU, discussed with experts about what can be done to fight the inequalities and the discrimination in the workplace.

EPN is enthusiastic to report about this meeting because, justas for ACCA, diversity is one of our core values. In his welcome speech, ACCA Deputy President Martin Turner emphasized that:

  •      Last year, ACCA, in conjunction with the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) launched a report called “Women in finance: a springboard to corporate board positions?”.The findings showed that 45% of female executive directors are financially qualified and 65% have financial backgrounds; whereas only 26% of their male counterparts have financial qualifications and 44% come from financial backgrounds. This example implies that women still have to work harder to be considered equal to men. Another important issue that needs to be addressed is the ageing of the labor force and discrimination towards older workers.
  • ACCA has recently become a supporting member of the Global Board-Ready Women Initiative. This project aims to make companies available through an online database to a comprehensive list of international women who are experienced and ready to immediately take on mandates in listed companies. ACCA membership counts an impressive pool of such talented qualified women around the world, who are ready to shatter the infamous ‘glass ceiling’.

The first panel debated whether we are correctly tackling inequality and discrimination in the workplace. The panel speakers were Daniela Bankier, Head of Gender Equality Unit, DG justice, European Commission; Louise Richardson, Vice-President, AGEplatform; Kasper Paulig, Counsellor for Social Affairs, Permanent Representation of Sweden to the EU; Cristina Vicini, Board Director and GBRW Founding Member, the Global Board-Ready Women Initiative.

 acca2Daniela Bankier, Head of Gender Equality Unit at DG Justice at the  European Commission, opened the debate by emphasizing the difficulties to  concentrate on these issues during this period of economic crisis. But we should  have hope. She gave a very inspirational speech by taking the example of  Ireland and its tremendous change at a legislative level over the last 40 years,  although before men and women lived in separate worlds. She said: “Yes, we  can change”.

Equality between women and men is a fundamental right as much as the right for equal payment. This last one goes back to 1957 when the principle of equal pay for equal work became part of the Treaty of Rome and became one of the European Union’s founding values. But “It is also something that you cannot just achieve, it is an ongoing process”. Despite the tangible achievements in the last 50 years, we still need to tackle some gender gaps, especially:

  • The female employment rate which has increased but now stuck and very low in some countries;
  • The share between women and men working part-time and the risk for women to accumulate less  pension which puts them at a greater risk of poverty;
  • The gender pay gaps are still a mirror of the inequality that women and men are facing in the labor acca3market: such as occupational segregation where women are noticeably more concentrated in the services sector than their male counterparts above all household activities, health and social services;
  • The reconciliation of private and work life is still not sufficiently addressed: raising children is not a burden but it has more weight in a women’s life and is more directly connected to their unstable working life and to the need of more child-care infrastructure (Barcelona priorities);
  • Women need more opportunities of access to higher positions: in the EU we see the shocking number of just 16% of women on boards and the trends are not getting better! If we do not take other measures now, the EU will take other 40 years to reach the parity in this field.

After having underscored these important points, Daniela Bankier continued by stressing that although the EU has made significant progress over the last decades, across the Member States and within them there is still a great difference between equality legislation standards as well as a significant disparity of opportunities between cities and the countryside. She ensured that the European Commission intends to monitor the progress of the Member States in meeting the Barcelona targets.

EPN also found the intervention coming from Cristina Vicini, Board Director and Global Board Ready acca4Women Founding Member as deeply inspiring.  Her approach reflected practical and a good example of successful career. She introduced the Global Board Ready Women Initiative and explained that it represents a list of women into an online database. The women on this list all fulfill stringent criteria for corporate governance as defined by publicly listed companies and are well qualified and ready to go on boards as of today. This ever growing list is consultable online for corporations and for executive search companies and certainly makes it clear that there are more than enough eminently qualified women to help lead Europe’s and the world’s corporations into the 21st century and that it is now time to shatter the glass ceiling that keeps these women from ascending to board of directors positions.

 She also made a very important point when speaking about companies looking for qualified women and new talents by asking a very good question to the audience: “Where are the women? Where are these talents which everybody speaks about? Apparently, it is difficult to find them”. She remarkably stated that our society is full of talented women but that the companies look for them in easy areas, that is to say they do not consider the power of networks and social capital.

Ms. Vicini affirmed: “Companies have to stretch themselves not only by looking for new acca5talents, but also by redefining what kind of talent they really need to build the company of the future”.  

“Some women are brave self-initiated professionals and we have to think beyond the borders. We must think independently of geography”.

 The Vice-President of the European Commission and EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reading was also recalled by Ms. Vicini, when the last 12th December 2012 at the launch of GBRW database, stated: “We need to use all of our society’s talents to ensure that Europe’s economy takes off. That is why the European Commission has proposed a European law for boosting gender balance in company board rooms”. I often hear the argument that there are not enough qualified women to occupy positions in the boardroom. Today European Business Schools and their colleagues around the world are shattering those myths as well as glass ceilings! The list shows that the qualified women are there – 8 000 of them. Companies should now make use of this untapped pool of talent.”

 To this extent, it is also essential to answer other key questions which often come up when we deal with quotas. “Are the women we put on boards really qualified? Or do we just make compromise to put them on boards? YES, they are! The GBRW initiative is more than a database – stated Ms. Vicini. It is growing rapidly and it shows that many women are competent qualified professionals. It’s about visibility and we want people to know it, we want to settle good example for young generations! Quotas are symbolic while role models are crucial.”


Martin Turner, ACCA Deputy President 2012-2013 said: “Despite the tangible achievements in the last 50 years, recent studies have shown that the corporate world is far from making the most out of diversity – particularly gender diversity, especially for managerial positions. Another societal issue strongly linked to the broader issue of managing diversity in the work life. There is the matter of ageing of the labour force; age discrimination towards older workers. These needs to be addressed, new structures and approaches have to be developed to allow the increasing number of older workers to remain active in the labour market.”

The second panel discussed if we can do more -or better- to support diversity. This panel included Richard Howitt, MEP rapporteur on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR); Flavia Micilotta, Manager CSR, Diversity, Well-being and Engagement at Euroclear; Didier Millerot, Head of the Financial Reporting Unit, DG MARKT, European Commission; Marko Curavic, Head of Unit, Entrepreneurship 2020, DG ENTR, European Commission; Turid Elisabeth Solvang, Norwegian Institute of Directors, ecoDa; Evelyn Regner, MEP, Rapporteur on Gender balance among non-executive directors of companies listed on stock exchanges. 

Richard Howitt, MEP Rapporteur on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), stressed that: “Business acca7progress on diversity must not be a victim of the economic crisis. The gains that we have worked hard to secure are now under huge pressure and a lingering threat because of the ongoing economic uncertainty. The European Parliament has been clear in my report voted last month, on how the CSR has to be at the heart of a truly inclusive and long-term sustainable recovery. Vulnerable groups are often the first and hardest hit victims of an economic downturn such as children, disabled people or women. But as policymakers we must use all tools at our disposal including a better use of public procurement and an increased emphasis on social and human rights standards to ensure that a sustainable recovery is also an inclusive recovery.”

acca8 Marko Curavic, Head of Unit, Entrepreneurship, DG Enterprise & Industry,  called attention to SMEs which represent a very important source of job  creation and a good channel to include under-represented groups into the  labour market, stressing that the EU should use all their creativity. “Everybody  can create an enterprise but we need to empower those groups. Economic  empowerment goes hand in hand with the legal one and the right to create  one’s own business!” Also, there is a gap between women and men when it  comes to entrepreneurship. If we have less women entrepreneurs, it is hardly  because they lack confidence. It is because women are more diligent risk takers – according to the World Bank. Why? Because they get less finance and have more constraints when they want to start a business. Entrepreneurship in education is another fundamental element; it could triple the numbers of women in starting up their own company. In order to do this, we need to set good examples – role models – capable of conveying the message of success and attractiveness for new potential entrepreneurs.

The Commission has already opened a Women’s Entrepreneurship Portal, with links to contacts, events and networking opportunities within and between Member States. While the European Network to Promote Women’s Entrepreneurship (WES) brings together government representatives from 30 European countries to provide advice, support and information for female entrepreneurs, helping them to raise their profile and expand their businesses. It publishes an annual report of activity by national governments.

acca9 Evelyn Regner, MEP rapporteur on the topic for the Legal Affairs Committee,  highlighted that: “Diversity in boards is both fun and a tool of success, much  needed to reflect the whole picture in the society, to be competitive and get new  ideas. We all know it. Self regulation and the principle for a greater diversity on  boards has not yet worked out, we are currently dealing with market decline and  we need to move toward solutions. In terms of gender balance, quotas are a  valuable and motivating incentive. There is a strong need for an ambitious  legislative instrument – accompanied by sanctions if the goal is not reached – to  increase the number of women, not only in non-executive positions, but also as executive directors and in the middle management bodies of companies. The measure shall be temporary and when the directive will expire in 2028, hopefully we won’t be in the need of gender quotas anymore.”

The conclusions made by Fiona O’Sullivan, Justice Attaché representing the Irish Presidency of the Council of the EU, resumed perfectly the whole aim of the conference: ‘Equality should not be seen as a cost but as a vital component of a strong economy where all citizens can contribute. It needs to be considered holistically: improving equality is also a way to improve the fiscal balance, to fight poverty and to strengthen the talent pool. Effective initiatives are not limited to government. We have heard today of innovative practices by enterprises, such as actions in the area of corporate social responsibility and in supporting entrepreneurship.”

EPN was flattered to participate in this conference and share the fundamental idea that there is an urgent need to shift the trend and tap into either largely unexploited – or badly exploited – sources of talent that more vulnerable segments of the population such as women, older or disabled workers represent.  There is an economic, societal and business dimension of this but, changing mentalities takes time. Incentives require stronger business and stakeholders’ engagement, a more focused attention from decision-makers, and better awareness-raising actions and dialogue with society.