Euro MPs back quotas to get more women into top jobs
The European Parliament has backed calls for quotas to put more women into company boardrooms, if member states are deemed too slow to act.
The EU Commission wants the proportion of female board members at big companies to rise to 40% by 2020, from the current average of 12%.
The Commission has said it may legislate to make quotas compulsory.
The Euro MPs in Strasbourg also called for EU-wide measures to boost female representation in politics.
Last week the EU's Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding,launched a public consultationto generate initiatives - including possible legislation - aimed at redressing the gender imbalance.
Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain are among the countries that have already introduced gender quotas for companies.
A majority of MEPs backed two resolutions aimed at tackling gender inequality -one targeting companies, initiated by Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in 't Veld, andanother targeting political parties, by Finnish centre-right MEP Sirpa Pietikainen.
"After decades of stagnation, it is high time to act," Ms in 't Veld said.
"I don't think there is anyone who is really in favour of quotas. It is a necessary evil, because voluntary measures have got us nowhere.
"Quotas are a very blunt instrument, and they can only have an impact in combination with other measures to facilitate and support more women in senior positions."
The BBC's Chris Morris in Strasbourg says some critics regard the idea of EU-wide legislation on the gender issue as patronising and counter-productive.
New research in the UK suggests that the number of women in British boardrooms is now increasing significantly without the use of mandatory quotas, he says.
The research predicts that the number of women directors at major UK-listed companies is likely to rise above 25% by 2015.
In national parliaments across the EU the proportion of women is 24%, and in national governments women make up 23% of the total.
The report by Ms Pietikainen said women's representation in the European Parliament had risen to 35% and in the EU Commission the representation of women "is stagnating at one-third". She also noted that the Commission has never been chaired by a woman.