Spain to introduce gender quotas in boards of businesses, cabinet

Pedro Sánchez cabinet's first meeting following a reshuffle July 13, 2021, Madrid, Spain. The cabinet is made up in 61 pct. of wome and 39 pct. of men. Photo: Eduardo Parra/Europa Press via Getty Images

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Saturday announced a gender equality law that will require more equal representation of women and men in politics, business, and other spheres of public life. If the law is put into effect, Sánchez’s own left-wing coalition cabinet might require restructuring.

The Equal Representation Law will apply gender parity measures to electoral lists, the boards of directors of big companies and governing boards of professional associations.

Sánchez made the announcement during a Socialist party rally ahead of International Women's Day on March 8. It will be approved during Tuesday's cabinet meeting before going for debate in parliament.

He said the government was “not only taking a step in favor of feminism, but in favor of Spanish society as a whole.”

It is the latest in a series of equality measures announced by the left-wing coalition government.Spanish Lawmakers have passed a transgender rights bill, as well as a pioneering law covering sexual and reproductive health that, in a first for a European country, offered state-funded paid leave for women who suffer from painful periods.

“If they represent half of society, half of the political and economic power has to be women's,” Sánchez said on Saturday.

The Equal Representation law will require women to make up 40 percent of the management of any listed company with more than 250 workers and an annual turnover of EUR 50 million (USD 53 million).

It will also require professional associations to have at least 40 percent women on their boards, as well as juries for any awards financed with public money.

The new Spanish law is in line with an EU directive approved last year that requires that all member states pass laws to ensure that at least 40 percent of non-executive director positions at listed companies are held by “members of the under-represented sex” by 2026. At the time, the EU noted that women accounted for around 60 percent of new university graduates in the EU but only 31.5 percent of corporate board members.

Gender parity in Spanish politics

In politics, the law will require parties to offer equal numbers of male and female candidates during national, regional, municipal and European elections, with the aim of increasing gender parity in legislative bodies. At the moment women make up 44 percent of Congress and 39 percent of the Senate.

Prime Minister Sánchez also plans to bring in a gender quota at the highest levels of government through a law requiring that each sex holds at least 40 percent of cabinet roles. No one can say that PM Sánchez has not been dedicated in pursuing gender parity. In fact, he appears to have overcorrected.

Within Sánchez’s government, 14 of the 23 cabinet members, or 61 percent, are women, including all the country’s three deputy prime ministers (Nadia Calviño, Yolanda Díaz and Teresa Ribera). Men make up 39 per cent of the current cabinet, which falls just short of the proposed law’s requirement that “each sex accounts for at least 40 percent of the total number” of posts, including the prime minister, deputy prime ministers, and all ministers.

If the law is passed by the parliament, it will mean that Sánchez may need to swap out one of his female cabinet members for a man.

However, there might be a way around it, as in mid-February Spain passed a law that allows people to change their gender on identification documents without the need for psychological or other medical appraisals from the age of 16. So if Sánchez wants to keep his cabinet intact, one of the women holding ministerial positions will simply have to arrange for a new set of documents.

The measure is not universally lauded by the members of the left-wing cabinet.

Minister of Social Rights and 2030 Agenda Ione Belarra, the sole cabinet member representing the Podemos party, said the government should focus on peoples’ “real problems”, such as unaffordable housing costs.

“Feminism is not about Ana Patricia Botín and Marta Ortega running a large company,” she said, referring to the wealthy chairs of Santander and Zara-owner Inditex.

Podemos has been the driving force behind the aforementioned trans self-identification legislation.

Gender parity across Europe

Several European countries have introduced legislation that are meant to bring more equal representation of women in politics. This is usually done by introducing quotas on electoral lists.

In 1994, Belgium was the first country to pass a law which stipulated that the number of candidates of one gender on an electoral list could not exceed two-thirds.

Under French law, electoral lists at most levels have had to be 50:50 balanced since 2000.

Poland has introduced a law requiring that representatives of each gender make up at least 35 pct. of electoral lists to the lower house of parliament. Elections to the upper house are conducted in single-seat constituencies.

As for cabinets, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz committed to having gender equality in his cabinet when he took office in 2021, but since January there have been more male than female ministers after he replaced defense minister Christine Lambrecht with Boris Pistorius.

In France, president Emmanuel Macron has extended pledges by his predecessor François Hollande to have a 50:50 gender balance in his 44-strong cabinet, including among junior ministers and secretaries of state, although there is no legal requirement to maintain it.