Belgian national study

Executive summary

Belgium ranks fifth in the “Gender Equality Index 2015 – Measuring gender equality in the European Union 2005-2012” of the European Institute for Gender Equality. Yet it only ranks 14th when it comes to the evaluation of women’s participation in the Boards of the largest listed companies1: only 13% are women in Belgium versus 16% in the EU-28. The situation has slightly improved over time2. Several measures have been adopted in the last 10 years: the 2013 report from the Institute for Equality between Women and Men showed that the enactment of a law on quotas in 2011 in Belgium had an impact on the share of women in Boards of listed enterprises and the first 100 unlisted enterprises in Belgium, reaching 10% in 2012 versus 6% in 20083. Although the increase is still rather limited, these results are a major stride forward. The legislation on gender quotas being quite recent, it will need time to bear its fruits.

Unlike the gender quota legislation, Belgium is one of the first European Member States to have developed a legislative framework for social enterprises. Even though a legal status for organisations of the social economy (such as associations, foundations…) has been in existence since 1921, the social economy was only defined in 1990. More recently in 2004, the Federal State and the federated entities endorsed a cooperative agreement on a common definition of the “plural economy”. In this agreement, the social economy is considered as one of the two pillars of the plural economy (next to the corporate social responsibility) and is defined as an ecosystem of social enterprises characterized by a business-oriented momentum (paid employment, economic risk-taking…), a purpose of service to the community or to its members rather than a profit-oriented purpose. It is also characterised by a democratic decision-making process and an autonomous management.

In 2015, we conducted two in-depth qualitative case studies, one in a conventional enterprise and one in a social enterprise in Belgium employing less than 65 persons. The analysis focused on the opportunities and barriers women faced along the process of getting access to decision-making positions. The present research reveals that both enterprises invite women to hold middle and lowlevel management positions which are as a consequence mainly occupied by women. Top management positions are however dominated, if not exclusively held, by men. The findings clearly show that the national legislative framework has no impact on small enterprises and that the resources scarcity (lack of time, of money, of formal HR services, etc.) is a strong factor hindering the development of sound talent search programs or equality gender policies. Even though both types of enterprises have very different corporate cultures (a gender-neutral one in the conventional enterprise; a gender-sensitive one in the social enterprise), both organisations tend to reproduce unconsciously gender stereotypes. The small size of the organisations however plays in favour of a broader range of arrangements and informal support structures helping women both fulfilling their professional objectives and balancing their private and professional lives.

2 See EIGE’s index trends at (accessed July 24, 2015).
3 IEFH, 2012: 104.