Influential women from the worlds of business, politics and academia gathered for three rounds of talks in Brussels yesterday (29 January).
While EU studies show equal participation in the labour market could bring a 15 to 45% rise in GDP, women still face important hurdles on the path to full gender equality.
Turning to women in times of crisis
Isabelle Durant, the vice-president of the European Parliament, identified “women’s lack of self-confidence” as a major issue when it comes to starting a private business, despite their superiority when it comes to "multidisciplinary management, in a moving and more complex labour market”.
“It’s when things go bad that we turn to women,” she said calling on ladies to take their part.
Her words were echoed by many participants, among them Saskia Van Uffelen, “digital champion of Belgium”, CEO of the IT company Bull. A mother of five Van Uffelen conceded that her husband had been very supportive of her and that she had been “lucky” to meet open-minded men throughout her career.
“We first have to create self-esteem about what we are able to do,” Van Uffelen, who works in a predominantly male sector, told the audience.
In her opinion a whole new economic model needs to be “recreated” and it needs to “get the best of everybody”. For that aim, new rules and regulations are needed that will create a new environment where women, as much as men, are able to exploit their abilities to the fullest.
Digital, innovative jobs were cited as the creative sectors in which women perform best. Women are also good at finding new ways of organising labour and break with the tradition hierarchical structures, participants said.
"Failure to close the gender gap through economic laws is a waste and puts at risk Europe's economic recovery", Irene Khan, the director-general of the International Development Law Organization said.
Consensus over quota policies
However, proactive measures need to be taken to bridge the gender gap, the participants said. Investing in education and especially in digital skills from a younger age was key, stressed Van Uffelen, adding she was “afraid for future generations”.
“There is a major gap between the educational system and the reality, and we need to create young people with digital skills,” the CEO warned.
But Van Uffelen stressed other structural problems in European countries. In her opinion, stimulating recruitment by putting in place more flexible rules is key for employers as it is for gender equality. “By stimulating recruitment measures, the number of women who work will increase,” she argued.
She also addressed another “cultural” European vision which prevents “large successes” by making bankruptcy a “shame”.
“In Europe, if you go bankrupt, it’s a scandal,” she stressed, adding that the practice of putting “those who have failed” on the side damages the economy and female entrepreneurs, she said, calling for concrete “measures that allow for mistakes”.
Although the EU has no legislative competence in labour policy which remains firmly in the hands of member states, things can still be done to “change the mentalities,” according to MEP Silvana Koch-Mehrin, a member of the EU Parliament women’s rights committee.
One of those measures is the “Women on Boards” proposal of the European Commission, strongly backed by the Parliament, which forces large companies to have 40% of women among its non-executive board members.
“Although it’s a symbolic measure, it’s powerful,” Koch-Mehrin argued, backing the controversial idea. “It’s a good legislation; it touches a nerve, which means that it goes to the substance. From there, you can develop other arguments,” she said.
Asked whether this measure will “hire women just because they’re women”, the participants unanimously rejected the argument, noting that “not all men got their jobs because they were great”, and more importantly that “women should not be kept down just because they are women”.
The European legislation anyway puts emphasis on qualification and stipulates that “nobody will get a job on the board just because they are a woman”.
"Women must be able to take their rightful place. We need women's voices to be heard and women's talents to be deployed," said Jacqueline Franjou, CEO of the Women's Forum.
And if quotas are a "necessary evil" to help women take back their rightful place, "so be it", participants agreed.
As growth and competitiveness show weak signs of recovery in Europe, brining down trade barriers is as necessary as destroying gender barriers to bring the continent back on track, women argued.
However, their proposed methods may differ. Koch-Mehrin, a German liberal MEP, said boosting Europe's economy would happen by both getting “rid of trade barriers internally and creating free trade with everyone” and by responding to the demographic challenge of an ageing European society by fully including women in the labour market.
The position was shared by Sharon Leclercq-Spooner, vice-chair of the American Chamber of Commerce's EU trade committee, who called for a completion of the internal market by “changing the approach we have” on the transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP) currently under discussion. For Leclercq-Spooner, getting “rid of the pettiness that exists in the legislation” will bring the negotiations forward, even on food safety issues, which she described as “cultural choices” rather than safety concerns.
Koch-Mehrin however added that women are precisely the “most adamant” and “most emotional” on food issues in these negotiations.
“The uproar on GMOs is huge, there is little room for compromise and having more women around the table will make the compromise more difficult,” she added.
EurActiv was the media partner of the Women’s Forum 2014 in Brussels, along with La Tribune, France Medias Monde and RFI.