KPN sets example by appointing women to key executive positions

Telecommunications company KPN has taken the lead as the first group to exclusively invite women to apply for executive positions. In doing so, the company is taking a step further than the Dutch House of Representatives, which adopted a proposal of the governing Labour Party in October 2009 to introduce a target of 30% for women in executive positions in large companies. A manifesto drafted by 240 women in executive positions calls for a quota of 40%.

Efforts to increase number of women in executive positions

The problem in the Netherlands is the dominance of small-scale part-time jobs among women: three quarters of all women who work hold such a position and most of them are happy with this arrangement.

Telecommunications and information and communications technologies (ICT) company KPN is the first employer in the Netherlands to explicitly favour women when appointing key executives. Men are even excluded from applying for certain positions. However, the exact positions in question remain unknown. The company believes that too few women hold executive positions. However, the measures adopted by the company so far appear not to have succeeded. KPN took measures directed chiefly at alleviating pressure for women at home or stimulating career development among this group. It now appears that women are turning their backs on KPN, partly because they feel underappreciated within the company. While across the workforce KPN employs 23% of women, they only hold 17% of executive positions at the company. The Chair of the Board at KPN, Ad Scheepbouwer, has no intention of waiting for the situation to change and calls for action, which in this case means awarding preference to women for certain vacancies. Mr Scheepbouwer is especially outspoken on the topic and is not interested in target figures or quotas. As the problem of too few women in top positions was addressed a long time ago in the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US), Mr Scheepbouwer is critical of the fact that the Netherlands lags so far behind.

Dutch House of Representatives approves target figures

KPN is taking the matter a step further than the Dutch House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal), which has also devoted attention to the issue of stagnating figures for women in executive positions. The proposal tabled by the governing Labour Party (Partij van de Arbeid, PvdA) at the end of October 2009 to introduce a target of 30% for women in executive positions at large companies was adopted in November 2009 by a majority of the Dutch House of Representatives – including the opposition party, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie, VVD). Agreement has been reached that a quota will be set even if the target figures are not achieved by 2016. The plan for statutory target figures also stipulates that companies must justify their reasons for not having achieved the target figures, if this is the case. Furthermore, they must put forward a plan outlining how they propose to improve these results. Executive positions are understood to include members of the management and supervisory boards in companies with a workforce of 250 people or more.

Temporary measure

Studies show that support for more diversity in top positions amounts to little more than pretentious talk. Of the 116 new appointments at an executive level at listed companies, 14 went to women in 2008. At such companies, of the 831 positions at a management or supervisory board level, only 5.7% of them are held by women (NL0904049I). As expressed by PvdA’s spokesperson, Paul Kalma, the House of Representatives believes that developments are moving far too slowly in this regard and calls for legislation to support the promotion of women. By introducing target figures, PvdA hopes that all companies will have complied with the 30% requirement for women in top positions by 2016. As far as the House of Representatives is concerned, this requirement could then be scrapped. However, should the target figure fail, a quota will be considered. However, VVD will not support this idea at present as it sees the target figures as a temporary measure to break the ‘old boys’ network’. For about 200 women holding executive positions within the business community, the new legislation is too relaxed.

FNV supports compulsory quota

A group of 215 female executives are calling for the adoption of a quota for women in management positions. In a manifesto drafted by this group of businesswomen, government, parliament and the social partners are requested to go a step further than setting target figures for women in executive positions alone and to introduce a quota for women in these roles. The quota demanded in relation to supervisory board membership is the same as that in Norway of 40%. This position is supported by both PvdA and the Dutch Trade Union Federation (Federatie Nederlandse Vakbeweging, FNV). This topic was only taken up recently in the social partners’ agenda for collective bargaining. Employers are cautious, especially concerning flexibility and self-rostering. They are afraid of losing control over the work process. It also appears that men and women are treated differently in cases where they request to work part time. Men are warned of the career consequences associated with taking up part-time work, while requests from women are complied with immediately.

Female executives say that they regret having had to take such an initiative. According to Bercan Günel, who led the initiative and heads up executive search company Woman Capital, it is a ‘rough remedy’. Ms Günel has always been opposed to legislation, but voluntary initiatives directed at achieving cultural shifts have failed. At today’s rate, the current level of 5.7% of women in boardroom positions will increase to 12% at most over the next 25 years. Ms Günel notes that, despite all of the promises, ambassador networks and initiatives such as ‘Talent to the Top’, a group of men still basically run the Netherlands. In October 2009, Woman Capital sent a quota manifesto to all members of the Senate of the Dutch parliament (Eerste Kamer der Staten-Generaal) and the House of Representatives. The manifesto calls for a statutory minimum quota for women of 40% to be imposed at a board or supervisory level at listed companies, government bodies and (semi-)public organisations within five years – by 2014 at the latest. The initiative had little impact; the House of Representatives is upholding its proposal for target figures for women in top positions.

Part-Time Plus Taskforce

The Dutch government established the Part-Time Plus Taskforce (Taskforce DeeltijdPlus) to investigate how the labour market participation rate of women can be increased. In 2009, the taskforce initiated studies into how women can be motivated to work longer hours in practice. Previous studies conducted by the taskforce already show that the problem is no longer that so few women work outside their homes in the Netherlands. It is not the numbers of women working outside the home, but rather the scope of their jobs that must be addressed. The average working week for women amounts to 25 hours, while for men it is 37 hours.

Another study examined women’s ambitions. The study into the ambitions of women and men carried out among 7,000 workers revealed that both sexes are similar in terms of ambition. Women in part-time employment also differed little from their female counterparts working full time in terms of their ambitions. Men’s ambitions are expressed more in their drive for promotion, while women are more eager to find substantive depth in their work. Almost all of the women participating in the study attach importance to working part time. No more than 1% of them were interested in working longer hours. The researchers concluded that managers should take greater account of stimulating the ambitions and careers of women. For instance, if a woman has children, it is assumed that she will work less. While this may be true, managers could certainly do more to promote career development: for instance, working less for a period of time, but perhaps extending the number of working hours in the future. At the same time, employers should adopt a more flexible approach, by being open to flexible, non-standard working hours for example. According to one of the researchers involved in the study, Yvonne Benschop, working a four-day week need not always have to correspond with traditional office hours.

Career development after childrearing

In other studies, employers have acknowledged that they would not object to part-time positions at an executive or supporting level. Close to 40% of employers consider part-time work convenient. However, at a managerial level, more that 40% see part-time work as problematic. The Chair of the Part-Time Plus Taskforce, Pia Dijkstra, concludes that the part-time work pattern for women, especially mothers, is embedded in a society that takes this pattern for granted. No questions are asked if women work less after the birth of a child. Little thought is given to how damaging this choice could be for women’s career prospects. Career building and having children still fall within the same phase of life. Part-time work outside the home – for example, three days a week – does not exactly promote career development.

A small-scale part-time job need not necessarily be the only opportunity available to these women. The government should adopt supportive measures to promote flexibility in employment. This could include all type of activities outside of school, so that expectations of childcare at home after 15:00 slowly begin to assume a less pronounced position in relation to Dutch lifestyle and household patterns.

One possibility that could be considered for women would be putting career development on hold until reaching the age of 45 years, once the children are a bit older and women still have 20 years of service ahead of them. At present, an entire generation of workers are in fact being written off because they fail to pursue a career in time. Consideration should be given to school times, extended office hours for shops and services, less demand for parental assistance at school, more activities such as swimming lessons and music lessons at school, and tax incentives instead of being discouraged. This would alleviate pressure for parents. Ms Dijkstra concludes that labour market participation would increase among women if the different systems of organising work and care were better synchronised.

Marianne Grünell, University of Amsterdam, Hugo Sinzheimer Institute (HSI)

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