By Sarah Marsh
BERLIN, March 9 (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel's centre-right coalition came under pressure on Friday to back legal quotas for women on company boards in a country that lags many of its European peers on gender equality.
Some of Merkel's lawmakers signalled support for an opposition-sponsored bill to introduce a quota after voluntary targets favoured by the chancellor failed to significantly raise the number of women in senior corporate roles in the past year.
But other members of the ruling coalition remain adamantly opposed to a measure they say meddles in private sector decision-making, undermines the principle of promotion on merit and fails to tackle the root causes of the problem in Germany.
"The quota would lead to the good women here finally getting the jobs they deserve... Therefore I call upon you to no longer be closed to this debate," said Eva Hoegl, a member of the parliamentary committee on labour and social issues from the main opposition Social Democrats (SPD).
"We can talk about the details... But let us together do something for the many wonderful women in this country, let us do more for equal opportunities," she said during a debate in the Bundestag lower house of parliament.
Under the SPD proposal, at least 40 percent of jobs on the boards of listed companies would have to go to women by 2015, up from around only 3 percent now.
Many European countries, such as Norway, France and Spain, already legally require top listed companies to ensure at least a third of top management is female.
"In my party, we hold different points of view," said conservative MP Andrea Vosshoff. "But I believe this proposal offers a good basis."
SLOW PACE OF CHANGE
Conservative Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who also backs introducing a quota, said this week Merkel had indicated she would consider how voluntary targets were working for a while longer. But she would be forced to act if the situation did not change dramatically, the minister said.
DIW think tank said the proportion of women in top leadership positions at the biggest 200 companies had barely changed in 2011, while it had risen marginally to 3.7 percent among the 30 blue-chip firms in the public eye.
The European Commission is adding pressure to the campaign to break through the glass ceiling. It moved one step closer on Monday to forcing companies to increase the number of women on their boards with a consultation on imposed quotas.
According to the Commission, it would take 40 years to reach anything like gender balance in Germany at the current rate of change.
There have been some small signs of progress, however.
Last week, 350 female German journalists called for a 30 percent quota for women in leadership positions at media companies. Only 2 percent of editors at 360 daily and weekly newspapers are women, they wrote in an open letter.
The editor of respected business daily Handelsblatt responded swiftly by announcing a quota at all levels of management in editorial, saying this was not only borne of "fairness, but also economic reason."
This week, carmaker BMW also appointed the first woman, Milagros Caina-Andree, to its executive board.
But critics say this is just a symbolic measure aimed at averting legally imposed quotas. "It's quite simple: BMW now has the quota woman it was lacking," said a former manager in the auto industry, who declined to be named.
Those against a quota say the debate diverts attention from what they say is the real culprit - a lack of childcare options and short school days that make it difficult for women to juggle work and family.
Data released by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development this week also showed Germany lagging on equal pay, with women earning 21.6 percent less on average than their male counterparts, the widest gap in Europe. (Additional Reporting by Holger Hansen, Hans-Edzard Busemann and Christiaan Hetzner, Editing by Gareth Jones and Karolina Tagaris)