The European Court of Justice, delivering a landmark ruling on sex discrimination, said Tuesday that European Union governments may not impose quotas that give women preference for jobs and promotions.
The Luxembourg-based court, in a case brought by a male landscaper working for the German city of Bremen, said such programs violate an equal opportunities law within the European Union, or EU.
Women's rights advocates condemned the ruling as a step backward and said they will fight to amend the EU treaty.
The court ruled that governments may not give women automatic priority for jobs.
"National rules which guarantee women absolute and unconditional priority for appointment or promotion go beyond promoting equal opportunities and overstep the limits of [the EU law]," it said.
The decision will be keenly studied in Germany, where, by coincidence, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union will be voting today on whether to have job quotas for women within the party.
It is also expected to have implications for similar job-preference programs across the EU. "We expect this particular ruling to have quite an impact," said Barbara Nolan, a spokeswoman for the EU's Commission of the European Communities.
She said the EU executive would consider whether to propose amending the EU law that was cited.
However, a commission legal expert said she believes the scope of the judgment is limited because few other EU governments have imposed such a strict quota system as the one considered by the court.
The case, which was referred to the Court of Justice by a German court, was brought by Eckhard Kalanke, who was passed over for promotion to section manager in the Bremen Parks Department.
The job went to a woman under a state law requiring public agencies to give preference to female candidates with the same qualifications as male applicants for posts in which women are underrepresented.
The law said women were underrepresented if they made up less than half of the staff at relevant pay and job levels.
The court said that violated a 1976 EU directive barring "discrimination on the grounds of sex either directly or indirectly."