“Does my vote count, Mummy?” The question was asked by little Vittoria, the daughter of MEP Licia Ronzulli, during one of the innumerable sessions of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, which she attended in her mother’s arms.

Images of the two Ronzullis, who have appeared together on the benches of the European Parliament on several occasions in recent years, have become a symbol for working mothers and something of a signature for the Italian MEP: sitting with Vittoria on her knee, alongside other mostly male MEPs, Licia looks after her daughter while taking care of her documents, and the computer and Blackberry she always has with her. And when issues are put to a vote, Vittoria, who imitates her mother, also raises her hand.

In a few years, Vittoria’s vote will in fact count. Perhaps, like Licia, she will even occupy an important post in government, or a position in a multinational or public company, alongside women who have been raised to take charge of high-level responsibility. This is the objective that has been adopted by Brussels, and in particular by the unrelenting Viviane Reding. Ever since she took control of the Directorate-General for Justice, the European Commissioner has persistently battled for a greater role for women, especially on the boards of large companies.

On November 20, the European Parliament voted by an overwhelming majority to back a directive designed to improve the gender balance in Europe’s company boardrooms. A world in which, on the level of the European Union, the participation of women has increased from 15.8 per cent to 16.8 per cent over the last three years.

Less encouraging picture

The picture is somewhat less encouraging for Portugal, where the number of highly placed women executives in public and private companies has in fact declined since 2012

The picture is somewhat less encouraging for Portugal, where the number of highly placed women executives in public and private companies has in fact declined since 2012. According to figures from the Portuguese secretariat for equality, women currently occupy 25.9 per cent of senior posts in public companies, and 9.1 per cent in private ones. And it is this state of affairs that has persuaded the indomitable Reding to continue fighting.

It is naive to rely on male gallantry to provide women with high-level jobs. But it is also disagreeable to have to impose a better balance. First and foremost because the battle to combat inequality makes use of a criterion that is unfair: one that emphasises gender rather than competence, which does not encourage genuine recognition for women’s real talents. There is no denying that boardroom doors are not wide open to women. It is common knowledge that their careers are beset by greater difficulties, and there is no doubt that they will not account for a majority of heads of state for some time to come.

The glass ceiling is a reality, and an enduring obstacle to women who aspire to positions of power. For this reason, the bid to establish quotas in companies and parliaments is, without doubt, a necessary evil to rectify blatant inequality – the fact that we never see a man in parliament voting on laws that regulate the life of a nation with his son on his knee is not insignificant. Having said that, we can no more legislate for equality than we can for competence. The problem is not a legal one, but a matter of behaviour and mentalities, which we should urgently seek to change.