Economy & Trade, Europe, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Women & Economy

PORTUGAL: Women Executives Still a Rarity

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Apr 16 2008 (IPS) - It is not common to see a woman’s name on the board of directors of one of Portugal’s biggest companies, and even comes as a surprise to some.

In the European Union, Portugal and Italy are at the bottom of the list in terms of female representation in economic decision-making positions, along with Cyprus and Luxembourg.

The sharpest contrast in Europe is with Norway, a non-EU country that is the most advanced in the region with respect to gender equality in the economic-financial sphere, where women held 34 percent of high-level executive positions in business in 2007, a proportion that is expected to rise to 40 percent by the end of this year.

In Portugal, only seven women hold executive positions in the 20 biggest companies listed on the Portuguese Stock Index (PSI-20), compared to 116 men (94 percent).

The seven women in question are on the boards of directors in five companies, three of which are family businesses.

The Mota-Engil construction company is the only PSI-20 company with an equal number of men and women on its six-member board of directors. But the explanation becomes clear with a glance at the full names of the three female executives: María Manuela Vasconcelos Mota, María Teresa Vasconcelos Mota and María Paula Vasconcelos Mota – three members of the family that owns the company.

The scarcity of women in top business positions comes as no surprise to María Manuela Tavares, head of the Uniao de Mulheres Alternativa e Resposta (UMAR), a women’s rights group, as she told IPS when commenting on the data contained in a research study by analyst São José Almeida that was the focus of a late March article by the Público newspaper in Lisbon.

“In Portuguese society, there is a masculine model of power – in politics, business management, decision-making positions and other high-profile posts. Centuries of history have made women invisible,” said the 56-year-old university professor, one of Portugal’s leading women’s studies researchers.

Tavares acknowledged that advances have been made in the professional and social status of women in Portugal since the 1926-1974 dictatorship was toppled by the leftist army captains who carried out the so-called “carnation revolution”, “but that progress has not yet done away with gender stereotypes based on specific ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ images.”

Professor Antonia Pedroso de Lima at the University of Lisbon Higher Institute of Sciences of Labour and Business (ISCTE), who is quoted in Almeida’s study, says executive positions are seen as “more legitimate when they are held by men.”

The constitution approved in 1976, two years after Portugal’s return to democracy, granted women complete legal autonomy for the first time in the country’s history.

But Pedroso de Lima says “the ideology perpetuated during the ‘Estado Novo’ dictatorship (of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar and Marcello Caetano, 1933-1974) still weighs heavily, and women are still shut out of certain professions; the mindset doesn’t just disappear because the constitution was amended.”

This phenomenon “has to do with the asymmetries of society and culture, and not with qualifications,” says the ISCTE professor of anthropology.

According to Pedroso de Lima, “there are few women in companies and in any leadership position, such as in universities, where most professors are women but the high-level posts are held by men.”

This is especially the case in Spain, Portugal and Italy, where this reality “reflects a pattern of very marked cultural and social values,” said the professor.

The extremely low Portuguese average of 5.7 percent of women in executive positions in the world of business is practically the same as the proportions seen in Italy, Cyprus and Luxembourg, and is explained by Almeida “by historical reasons and present-day cultural factors.”

But in politics, where 26.5 percent of parliamentarians are women, Portugal is far ahead of Italy, which ranks last in Europe with just 11.5 percent female lawmakers, and ahead of France (12.2 percent) and the United Kingdom (19.7 percent) as well.

These figures, provided by a study released by the Portuguese parliament in mid-2006 and which include Norway but not all of the countries of the EU, show that Portugal surpasses the European average of 18.4 percent women legislators.

The countries encompassed by the report are led by Sweden (45.3 percent), Norway (37.9 percent), Finland (37.5 percent), Denmark (36.9 percent), the Netherlands (36.7 percent), Spain (36 percent) and Germany (31.8 percent).

In Spain, the new cabinet of reelected Prime Minister José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero has achieved gender parity and then some: it is made up of nine women and eight men. But in neighbouring Portugal, the progress towards gender equality has been slower.

Tavares recognised that “women have gradually taken up their place in public decision-making posts, gaining ground, but men do not yet adequately value the so-called ‘private’ sphere, because gender parity in all areas of life also requires a new view of time management.”

This shift in mindset is necessary “so that it is not always women who are penalised the most for wanting, rightly, to assume political and economic decision-making positions,” she said.

In Portugal and other southern European societies, “women are always expected to be the ones who are able to balance their professional careers with the responsibility of child-rearing and caring for the elderly, while men aren’t supposed to be ‘bothered’ with such minor concerns.” “As a result of the outdated, conservative business mentality, when a young woman graduates from university and shows up for a job interview, the first question put to her by her potential employer is if she plans to marry and have children – a question that men are never asked, because they are expected to give total dedication to the firm and their profession.”

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