Why EU Commissioners Are Poor Politicians

Note: a highly-opinionated  piece re-posted from the EU blog I contribute to

EU Commissioners might be seasoned bureaucrats but make for lousy politicians. Viviane Reding, currently responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, and Commissioner since 1999 (!) is surely a masterful mandarin, but doesn’t play the politics game very well. And by politics, I don’t mean the internal bickering between the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament: I am sure she is a world champion at that – I mean politics as the art of pleasing the public while getting things done. Perhaps after so many years in the Brussels bubble Commissioner Reding has forgotten altogether that pleasing the public is part of the politics game as all. But when public support for the EU is hitting a new low, I can’t help but think that the feelings of the public should be high on the Commissioner’s mind.

In September this year Viviane Reding announced that the Commission is coming up with a proposal to set a compulsory 40-% quota for women on boards of public companies. Immediately, nine countries (including the Netherlands and Britain) and a few fellow Commissioners (including several women) expressed very strong disagreement. This, however, was not enough to put the brakes – on 14 November, the Commission approved a watered-down version which ‘sets an objective of a 40% presence of the under-represented sex among non-executive directors of companies listed on stock exchanges’, a “flexi quota” and a statement that ‘given equal qualification, priority shall be given to the under-represented sex’. Now, I haven’t much to say about the quality of the proposal as such – to put my cards on the table, I agree there is a problem with the unequal representation of women on company boards, and I don’t know enough about the effects of quotas to have a strong opinion about the proposed solution.

What is blindingly clear, however, is that the European citizens do not feel that this is an issue for the EU to solve, and there is virtually no popular support for such action coming from Brussels. How do I know? It’s data collected by the EU!

According to Eurobarometer, in 2007 ten percent of the European population agreed that the EU has an important role to play in combating discrimination (page 26, QA11). That’s just one out of every ten Europeans! Only three percent mentioned that they would turn to the EU in case of discrimination at the workplace (p.32, QA 13). In all fairness, 77% said they want to see more women in managerial positions, but no indication they wanted Commissioners poking their nose into that, or a policy which guarantees 40% of these positions for women.

If anything the case for European involvement into the matter has become even weaker since. A red-hot new survey made available last week shows that only 31% of European citizens agree that there is widespread gender discrimination in their countries:  seven out of ten Europeans find gender discrimination rare or non-existent. Moreover, only 22% agree that being a female puts you at a disadvantage when looking for a job (page 87, QC4). In fact, more people feel that their accent might be a problem. Again, this is not to say that, objectively speaking, there is no underrepresentation of women in top positions. But it seems that the majority of people do not find gender discrimination at the workplace very widespread, nor a political priority.

In 2009 Europeans generally supported measures for monitoring hiring practices and the gender composition at the workforce, but 58% found enough was already being done in that respect. Interestingly, the new survey from 2012 doesn’t even ask people whether they think that it’s a good idea for the EU to get involved or whether a ‘compulsory quota’ policy is the way to go. These are quite curious omissions given that the survey is otherwise quite comprehensive and comes out in the same week as the Commission’s policy proposal.

In summary, there is no broad support for further EU action in combating gender discrimination and even less so for a policy of quotas. So why is Viviane Reding pushing this agenda in the face of absent popular support and explicit opposition from national governments? She probably strongly believes that this policy is the right and progressive thing to do. And that the Commission has the obligation to lead rather than blindly follow popular sentiments. But the fact remains that people, and many governments, don’t like the idea.

Irritating an increasingly hostile public with such proposals is not a very smart thing to do because the policy would never be approved by the member states anyways, but you still get the bad press. What is stuck in people’s minds is the fact that the Commission ‘approved’ something that they didn’t like: they won’t remember that the Commission only proposes and the Council and the Parliament decide, and that the initial proposal has been quickly watered-down to a more widely-acceptable version.

That’s why Reding’s recent actions are not smart and politically savvy in the way in which an EU-bashing politician like Nigel Farage can be politically smart and savvy. The forefathers of the EU from Jean Monnet to Jacques Delors managed to be both true to their ideals and politically shrewd in order to achieve them.

New policies like women quotas do not win new supporters for European integration. The people who like the idea of positive discrimination are likely to be the people who already support the EU: the more educated, cosmopolitan, and well-off. For the average woman, a position on the board of a top company is equally distant with or without a quota for females. But such policies would alienate people who disagree with the substance of the policy and are already suspicious of the EU. Which, as the numbers show, are by far the majority.

In her term as Information Society and Media Commissioner, Viviane Reding made a lot of efforts to increase the visibility of the European Union. Well, now people definitely pay more attention to what the EU does. And they often don’t like it. Now it’s time the Commission starts to pay more attention to what the people have to say.

Social science in the courtroom

Everyone who is interested in the sociology of science, causal inferences from observational data, employment gender discrimination, judicial sagas, or academic spats should read the latest issue of Sociological Methods & Research. The whole issue is devoted to the Wal-Mart Stores,Inc. v. Dukes et al. case – “the largest class-action employment discrimination suit in history”, with a focus on the uses of social science evidence in the courtroom. 

The focal point of contestation is the report of Dr. Bielby – an expert for the plaintiff. In a nutshell, the report says that the gender bias in promotion decisions at Wal-Mart can be attributed to the lack of efforts to create a strong corporate culture and limit the discretion managers have in promotion decisions, which in turn allows for biased decisions. The evidence is mostly 1) a literature review that supports the causal links between corporate policies and corporate culture, corporate culture and individual behavior, discretion and biased individual behavior, and corporate policies and outcomes, and 2) description of the corporate policies and culture at Wal-Mart which points to a relatively weak policy towards gender discrimination and considerable discretion for managers in promotion decisions. Dr. Bielby describes the method as follows: “…look at distinctive features of the firm’s policies and practices and … evaluate them against what social scientific research shows to be factors that create and sustain bias and those that minimize bias” [the method is designated as “social framework analysis”].

What gives the case broader significance (apart from the fact that it directly concerns between half a million and a million and a half current and former employees at Wal-Mart), is the letter [amicus brief] the American Sociological Association (ASA) decided to send in support of Dr. Bielby’s report. In the letter, ASA states that “the methods Dr. Bielby used are those social scientists rely on in scientific research that is published in top-quality peer-reviewed journals” and that “well done case studies are methodologically valid”. However, the Supreme Court apparently begs to differ, and rejected the plaintiffs’ claim.

The current issue of Sociological Research & Methods has two articles which attack the decision of ASA to endorse Dr. Bielby’s methodology and two articles that support it. In my opinion, the former are right. Mitchell, Monahan, and Walker characterize Dr. Bielby’s approach as “subjective judgments about litigation materials collected and provided to the expert by the attorneys”, but even if that goes too far, Sørensen and Sharkey definitely have a point in writing that what Dr. Bielby does is engage in abductive reasoning – “generate a hypothesized explanation from an observed empirical phenomenon”. Hence, hardly a reliable way to make a valid inference about causes and effects. Employment discrimination might be consistent with high managerial discretion but is not necessarily caused by it.

What makes this academic exchange particularly juicy is the fact that most contributors (the editor of the journal included) have been opponents in the courtroom as well – well, not directly but as experts for the two sides in numerous employment discrimination suites. Which probably raises the stakes, I guess. Here is the editor describing the process of putting the special issue together:

“Managing” these interchanges has been far more difficult than I had thought. Even around very technical issues, scholars can get very heated. Part of the problem, I believe, is that the academy and, certainly, the social sciences, and most specifically sociology, do not have a well-articulated set of norms about how to engage in constructive scientific discourse. Too often I have seen the following:
1. Claims that a person holds a position or has said something when he or she did not, that is, “putting words in a person’s mouth.”
2. Misconstrual, intentionally or not, of the meaning of what a person has written.
3. Questioning the expertise, intelligence, motives, or morals of an author.
4. Obfuscation by bringing in irrelevant or tangential points or material.” (p.552-3)

Academic discourse at its best.