EU Gender Equality - Time to put words into action?

EU Gender Equality - Time to put words into action?

Equality between women and men is one of the European Union's founding values. It goes back to 1957 when the principle of equal pay for equal work became part of the Treaty of Rome. EU achievements in fostering equality between women and men have helped to change the lives of many European citizens for the better.

A European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) was established in 2010 as an autonomous body of the European Union. It adopted an ambitious vision - making equality between women and men a reality for all Europeans and beyond. Located in Vilnius, Lithuania, the institute aims at contributing to the promotion of gender equality and the fight against discrimination based on sex.

In a recent report – Gender Equality Index 2015 – it provides a composite indicator on gender equality across member states and over years (2005 – 2012). The report covers the development of gender equality in a number of areas such as work, money, knowledge, time, power, and health. Violence against women and the intersection of gender and other factors such as disability, ethnicity and age are also treated in the report.

“Sex refers to the biological differences between individuals. Gender refers to a socially and culturally constructed order, underpinned by a divi­sion on the basis of sex. Statistics can only capture informa­tion disaggregated by sex but it remains necessary to interpret them from a more elabo­rate and critical gender perspective. “

Gender Equality Index Report

The report states that with an overall score of 52.9 out of 100 in 2012, the EU remains only halfway towards equality, having risen from 51.3 in 2005. “Progress needs to increase its pace if the EU is to fulfil its ambitions and meet the targets for Europe in 2020.”

In certain areas men and women are more or less equal. With a 1.3 percentage point gap in women’s and men’s participation in university education, the EU is fairly close to equality in this area. As regards life expectancy women are better off. In 2012, citizens of the EU had a life expectancy at birth of 80 years on average, whereas women had a higher life expectancy of 83 years, compared with 78 years for men.

But, while the EU has made significant progress over the last decades, stark inequalities still exist, especially in areas such as time use, work and power.  Men and women allocate their time differently between work and unpaid work such as caring, they have jobs in different sectors and earn differently and there are still substantially fewer women in political leadership and decision-making positions.

Why do these gaps remain when discrimination on the basis of sex has been outlawed in Europe? The legal barriers for women making their voice heard in elections, participating actively in society, establishing their own companies and making a carrier in all sectors of the economy have been abolished years ago. If it is not discrimination, it must be because gender roles apparently still prevail. Women make different choices in life.

Roy Baumeister, an American professor of social psychology, who thinks that women are wonderful (=WAW), does agree with those who see gender relations as a “battle of the sexes” with victims on both sides. But he argues that men and women are first of all partners, supporting each other rather than exploiting each other. He uses the term complimentary sex instead of the opposite sex to emphasise his point that many of the remaining differences can be attributed to our culture and, in his view, have been to the benefit of both sexes through history.

“Most cultures have tended to use men for high-risk, high-payoff tasks much more than women. The result is that some men reap big rewards while others have their lives ruined or even cut short. Most cultures shield their women from the risk and therefore also don’t give them the big rewards.”

Roy Baumeister

Baumeister may be right that men display more extreme behaviour than women. They are for example more often workaholics and risk takers. On the other hand, if it is a matter of culture and motivation, why should we continue to accept old patterns and an outdated work division? Every individual has the right to realise his or her full potential.

While “recognizing differences”, to quote Nancy Fraser, an American professor of philosophy, we should also acknowledge that gender equality is a matter of social justice. An outdated work division with men as breadwinners and women as caretakers assigns stereotypical gender roles to women and reflects unbalanced power relations.

Gender equality is also good for the economy. According to a recent Commission initiative, aiming at a better work-family balance for all, the current low employment rate of women at EU level (63.5%) compared to men (75%) representsa waste of resources for the EU economy. The latest figures estimate that this employment gap costs 325 billion euros to the EU economy, i.e. 2.5 % of the total GDP. This is of course based on the assumption that women would earn the same as men if they were employed.

The gender gap in power is still huge both at the national and European levels of governance. In 2012, women represented only 25 per cent of members of national parliaments and just 22 per cent of ministers in the member states. In the EU institutions, women’s share of seats in the European parliament is currently 37 per cent.

Considerable differences exist between countries, with men holding as many as 94 % of ministerial positions in Romania, but equality achieved in Sweden where women and men had the same share of positions in 2012. In the majority of EU Member States, women hold less than 30 % of ministerial positions. From a democratic point of view it is crucial to reach a balanced representation of society as a whole.

In the run-up to the allocation of commissioner posts, European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, made a political promise to have at least 40 per cent female representation among commissioners if elected. However by appointing only nine women out of a total of 28 positions, the proportion of women remained 32 per cent or the same as in the previous college of commissioners.

The under-representation of women in decision-making positions in the economic sphere is even more pronounced. In 2014, women accounted for just 20 % of board members of the largest publicly listed companies registered in the EU countries.

Gender gaps remain in the labour market, where women often have to choose between paid work or staying at home to care for their children or the elderly and adults with special needs. They are also over-represented in lower paying sectors. On a positive note, women’s and men’s ability to take an hour or two off dur­ing working hours to take care of personal or family mat­ters is close to equal.

Equality in eco­nomic independence is important for men and women but has not yet been achieved. The “money” domain is crucial for the other domains. Men earn more than women on average. The unadjusted gender pay gap, based on hourly earnings, is about 16 %. If adjusted for working time – and women tend to work more part-time than men - the gap increases to 20 %. Many women are satisfied with working part-time but is it a real choice or an arrangement imposed by gender roles?

An often discussed question is if the pay gap is solely due to discrimination. Even if the gap would be corrected for factors such as experience and pay differences between sectors, a considerable part of the gap would remain. This could be called discrimination – although it is illegal –- even if cultural factors play also a role.

The fact that there are major differences in the pay gap between member states indicates that there is an interplay of discrimination and culture. Behind the experience at work, career breaks that mainly women face are fundamental in creating a highly unbalance situation between women and men.

As a result of earning less and unfair part-time pension rules women receive less in pension when they retire. The gender pension gap in the EU remains very wide, with women on average receiving pensions that are 40% lower than men's. The pension gap varies greatly from country to country, ranging from a 4% to a 46% difference in pensions between men and women.

No wonder that the European parliament recently stated that the EU’s post-2015 gender equality strategy needs "clearer targets, practical actions and more effective monitoring" to make real headway against discrimination in the labour market. Parliament's rapporteur on the gender issue, German Socialist MEP Maria Noichl said: “Despite our differences, MEPs focused on our key aim: to finally achieve real gender equality in Europe.”

She believes that adequate maternity/paternity/parental leave arrangements are needed to increase female employment rates. Parents also need affordable, quality child-care services that are compatible with the desired working hours of both men and women.

Members of the European Parliament (MEP) also stress the importance of flexible forms of work such as part-time to allow women and men to reconcile work and family life according to their own choice.

MEPs have asked the Council to reach a common position on a quota for women in top management positions as soon as possible as this has proved successful in countries that have already introduced compulsory quotas. They also called on national and EU authorities to ensure equality within their own decision-making bodies by proposing both a female and a male candidate for high-level positions.

On behalf of the Commission, Věra Jourová, Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, has pointed to some "encouraging trends", including the increased number of women in the labour market and their progress in securing better education and training. "Progress towards gender equality in the Member States is real, but important gaps remain. I am committed to tackling the remaining gender gaps in Europe."

The current mood is perhaps best summed up by Gesine Meissner, a German MEP, who declared, “Year by year the European Parliament discusses gender equality. It is finally time that words are followed by actions." 

By Martin Banks and Mose Apelblat

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