As the world celebrates the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, traditional barriers remain high and represent an obstacle for women trying to accede to high-level positions in the public and private sectors alike.
"Gender equality is unfinished business," said French senator Yannick Bodin, vice-president of the women's delegation in the French Senate, speaking last week in the European Parliament.
Ten EU countries have over 27% of women in the lower house of parliament, according to EU data, led by Sweden with 45%. But the majority have below 23% and two countries have less than 10% of women members.
The European Parliament scores slightly better. 35% its MEPs are female, and 60% of its officials are women, many of whom are policy experts. 40% of MEPs have high-ranking positions as committee chairs or vice-presidents. But men are still overrepresented among presidents of political groups.
The situation is even more disappointing in governments and the private sector, where only 3% of companies are chaired by a woman, according to a 2010 report on equality between women and men in the EU, which is currently going through the European Parliament.
Towards 'transformative change'
"All the right buttons are being pressed," said Mary Robinson, a former Irish prime minister, referring to the report at an event last week in the European Parliament. "But are we in Europe prepared to really tackle barriers over a ten-year transformative period? Are countries prepared to introduce quotas […] to correct existing imbalances?" she asked.
A lack of adequate financial resources, disproportionate family obligations, a lack of confidence in a predominantly male culture, and the preference of many women to work for civil society organisations whose culture is more friendly and gender sensitive. These are all problems cited by female politicians as hampering women's access to higher spheres.
"We need transformative change if we are going to address these problems," said Robinson.
Because results are mixed, Nicole Fontaine, a former president of the European Parliament, echoed Robinson, stressing that the assembly's report would need to come up with a "fresh dynamic for mobilisation". Even though the European Parliament is faring better than national assemblies, Fontaine stressed that 20 years had lapsed between its women presidents.
Pay gaps overshadow parity
Mobilisation seems to be the card played by the European Commisson, which launched on 5 March the first European Equal Pay Day to highlight the EU earnings gap.
"97 million women in Europe have been working since 1 January, but are only really starting to get paid this week," said Vice-President Viviane Reding, the EU's justice commissioner, launching the initiative.
"The European Equal Pay Day reminds us of how much work needs to be done to close the gender pay gap. Together with member states and social partners, we will seek to significantly reduce the gender pay gap in the EU, so that one day we will no longer need an Equal Pay Day to mark the differences in earnings between men and women."
Progress in reducing the gender pay gap has been slow, the commissioner remarked. The size of the gap ranges from 5% in Italy to 30% in Estonia, according to the latest figures for 2008. This reflects complex and ongoing inequalities in the labour market.
The effect of the gender pay gap on lifetime earnings means that women will also have lower pensions, noted Anne-Sophie Parent, director of AGE Platform Europe. As a result, elderly women are more likely to face poverty: 22% of women aged 65 and over are at risk of poverty compared to 16% of men.
The Greens in the European Parliament complained about what they saw as the EU's failure to act to close the pay gap in Europe. "There is an urgent need for legislative measures at EU level to end pay inequality and we urge Commissioner Reding to come forward with measures as soon as possible," said German Green MEP Franziska Brantner.
Quotas or not quotas?
For the time being, Viviane Reding is busy fighting to impose quotas in board rooms (see separate article).
Only one in ten board members of Europe's top listed companies are women, according to figures published by the European Commission. The representation of women among CEOs of the biggest companies is even lower, at 3%.
This is despite a recent study, endorsed by Brussels, which shows that a higher presence of women in top jobs has a positive impact on economic growth.
However, recent assessments show that quotas, wherever they are implemented, are not a panacea.
When Norway introduced a law in 2006 stipulating that women had to make up 40% of the boards of publicly traded companies, the move was hailed as a huge step forward.
Five years later the results are mixed, despite companies facing the draconian penalty of dissolution if they fail to comply with the new law.
To avoid the penalty, more than 100 companies have transformed themselves from publicly-owned to privately-held corporations. Responsibilities within the household and raising children are not fairly distributed between the sexes, according to Norwegian analysts.
Commenting on the Norwegian case, the European Women's Lobby noted that the right conditions should be put in place before initiating any kind of law. In Norway, EWL said, the availability of only a small number of women able to reach the top of the ladder created a situation under which just a few women sit on several boards.
In the long run, if women have to prove they are competent, they are therefore "condemned" to diligence and excellence, said Fontaine, "but they know that they will find it inspiring".
Ultimately though, women's participation in high-level decision-making is a question of equality and fundamental rights, noted Finnish MEP Sirpa Pietikäinen (European People's Party; EPP), who will draft a report on women in politics.
"Equality in society didn't add up as long as the structures of power remained the same," she said. "By involving more women in decision making we make better politics," she added, warning against segregation — always giving women the same political social affairs dossiers.
French EPP MEP Elisabeth Morin-Chatier insisted that the fight for gender equality is a collective one and a societal issue.