Diversity in the workplace

EURACTIV looks at where European policy stands in the area of workplace diversity. [Shutterstock/optimarc]

The pandemic that washed over Europe did not only lay bare the continent’s health vulnerabilities but also exposed the consequences of deep-seated inequalities.

A report by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) published in April acknowledged the “asymmetries in vulnerability” – including groups such as older people, people with disabilities and Roma communities.

As Europe gears up to ‘build back better’ and invest hundreds of billions of euros to kickstart the ailing economy, talk in Brussels increasingly moves towards pushing our “economies along the path of the green and the digital transitions in an inclusive manner, to ensure that no one is left behind.”

This policy brief looks at the ways in which European policymakers are aiming to ensure that the bloc’s recovery remains inclusive and fosters workplace diversity.

Research has long shown that workplace diversity pays off. More diverse and inclusive organisations spur innovation, diversity in decision‐making roles has been found to be associated with better organisational governance and social responsibility, and financial performance improves with increased diversity, potentially resulting in increased sales revenue, more customers, greater market share, and higher relative profits. 

Improving gender equality alone by 2050 would increase the EU’s GDP per capita by 6.1% to 9.6%, which amounts to €1.95 to €3.15 trillion, the European Institute of Gender Equality (EIGE) has estimated.

Yet, progress towards a more diverse labour market has been slow and compounded by the complexity of the issue. Data availability on the different aspects of diversity and inclusion, such as gender, ethnic, religious, age, disability, age and sexual minorities varies greatly.

An FRA report published this spring showed that last year 11% of LGBTI+ respondents felt discriminated against when looking for work, only a 2% improvement since 2012. Meanwhile, the proportion of those who feel discriminated against at work even increased by 2% to 21% in 2019.

Progress on gender diversity in workplaces has also been glacial, highlighted by the fact that gender equality in the domain of work has only improved by 2 points out of 100 across the EU in the past 14 years, with the bloc scoring an average of 72 in 2019.

At the same time, gender stereotypes persist. A 2017 Eurobarometer survey showed that 44% of Europeans think that the most important role of a woman is to take care of her home and family.

Employment rates of people with disabilities, standing at around 50.6%, continue to be well below the average employment rate of persons without disabilities, which was 74.8% in 2019.

Workplace discrimination data concerning ethnic minorities, when available at all, is also discouraging. For example, 16% of Roma respondents,  Europe’s largest ethnic minority with six million people living in the EU, reported discrimination when they look for work.

According to the of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) report on racism & discrimination in employment in Europe published in 2017, ethnic minorities have fewer chances of getting through the recruitment process. In Belgium, for instance, job applicants with foreign sounding names had 30% less chances of being invited to a job interview compared to applicants with a similar profile but local sounding names.

The European institutions also suffer from lack of diversity. ENAR estimated that despite racial and ethnic minorities making up at least 10% of the EU population, 5% of MEPs are ethnically diverse, a number that further decreased after Brexit. The college of Commissioners does not have any people of colour.

The EU has moved considerably in creating legal protections for minorities in the labour market. Legislative instruments such as the Employment Equality Directive and Race Equality Directive banned discrimination on the basis of religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation as well as on the grounds of racial or ethnic origin in several walks of life, including work.

Women were offered more protections in employment and occupation, self-employment and access to family leave and flexible work arrangements.

Yet, despite combating discrimination based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation in defining and implementing Union policies being a treaty obligation, the anti-discrimination directive proposed by the Commission in 2008 that would have transposed the principal of equal treatment into EU law has not moved out of the Council ever since.

Similarly, the elimination of inequality in all of the Union’s activities between men and women is a treaty obligation of the EU.

A decade ago, the Commission launched an EU platform to support companies, public institutions and nonprofit organisations in putting diversity, inclusion and solidarity at the core of their activities through “diversity charters.”

By signing such voluntary charters companies commit to create and maintain an inclusive work environment for their employees, regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, age, disability and sexual orientation. Member states have country-specific diversity charters.

Nevertheless, several diversity initiatives have either been either stranded in the legislative cycle or slow in implementation.

The “Women on Boards” directive, meant to address the imbalance between women and men in economic decision-making at the highest level and which introduced a target of at least 40% of non-executive directors of the under-represented sex for listed companies in the EU, has not been able to garner the support of a qualified majority of member states and has been stuck in the Council since 2012.

However, even though many multinationals as well as member states have in the meantime introduced gender, disability and age targets, a diversity axis often missing in such benchmarks has been ethnicity and race, Michael Privot, ENAR director pointed out.

Privot also said that the European regulatory package is missing the obligation to collect equality data, that would help to “prove if there is a trend or a pattern within a specific employer or sector of activity that people with a diverse ethnic backgrounds are not as successful.”

Instead of binding regulation, the Commission took a soft law approach by publishing guidelines in 2018 on improving the collection and use of equality data, which Privot said the member states are only now starting to roll out domestically.

Calling for more harmonisation between member states when it comes to equality data collection, Privot said it would also help enterprises “because having now a strong diversity policy in place that delivers results is becoming a competitive asset for companies.”

Privot added that while Racial Equality Directive foresees dissuasive penalties in cases of racial discrimination, these have proven ineffective.

“An EU benchmark would have been useful because now, in the rare case that there is a conviction, it leads to nearly nothing, to very small penalties, unlike the millions of dollars we see in the United States,” Privot said.

“The good thing is that more than the COVID, the Black Lives Matter movement, really made a number of companies wake up and understand that they need to increase and include more diversity.”


Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, the first woman to head the European executive, assigned Maltese Commissioner Helena Dalli to the newly created ‘equality’ portfolio, whose responsibilities include “strengthening Europe’s commitment to inclusion and equality in all of its senses” and “address barriers for women, including gender mainstreaming and equality at work with binding pay transparency.”

The Commission began to “give a new impetus” to gender equality through it’s recently presented five-year strategy, which will run until 2025 and aim to close the gender gap in employment as well as other areas of life.

“While the gender gap in education is being closed, gender gaps in employment, pay, care, power and pensions persist,” the strategy reads.

The European executive has adopted a dual approach to achieving gender equality, on the one hand promoting gender mainstreaming, — that is “systematically including a gender perspective in all stages of policy design” — as well as designing targeted measures.

As part of concrete measures, the Commission plans to support women to find jobs in sectors with skills shortages, in particular technology and AI, and renew the push to make headway on the 2012 ‘Women on Boards’ proposal to promote gender balance on corporate boards.

Later this year, the Commission plans to propose a pay transparency directive that will introduce binding pay transparency measures and strengthen enforcement mechanisms.

The Commission also promised to adopt new legislation with preventive and reactive measures against harassment in its own workplace, and will strive to reach a 50-50 gender balance at all levels of its management by the end of 2024.

Regarding the forthcoming update to the Roma Equality and Inclusion strategy to be presented in October, Commissioner Dalli said that it will “put a stronger focus on promoting equality for Roma by fighting antigypsyism and discrimination, hand in hand with promoting socio-economic inclusion.”

After the Black Lives Matter protests swept the continent, the college of Commissioners held a debate in June, which included a discussion on “encouraging businesses to implement inclusion strategies; and working to increase diversity in the European Commission.”

EURACTIV understands that tackling diversity in the workplace will be part of the Commission’s action plan to counter racism in the European Union.

As part of its “Strong Social Europe for Just Transitions” communication tabled in January that lays down the groundwork for the forthcoming action plan to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights, — which promises equal opportunities and access to the labour market, fair working conditions, as well as social protection and inclusion, — the Commission committed to promoting an economy that works for people with disabilities.

The Commission is also set to present a new LGBTI inclusion strategy later this year, as well as strengthened strategy for disability in 2021 that will build on the results of the ongoing evaluation of the 2010-2021 disability strategy.


The triad of countries that take the presidency of the European Council starting from summer 2020 — Germany, Portugal and Slovenia — adopted a declaration on gender equality that called for “holistic measures to increase knowledge and data on the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic in the field of gender equality and for a definition of adequate and gender-responsive measures in all policy areas, including … economic inequality, and the inequalities between men and women regarding paid and unpaid work.”

“Gender equality must be a fundamental part of social and economic recovery plans,” the countries stressed.

As part of the declaration, Germany, which currently helms the Council, set the aim to discuss and possibly adopt conclusions on ‘Tackling the Gender Pay Gap: Valuation and Distribution of Paid and Unpaid (Care-) Work’ at the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO) meeting on 3 December 2020.

“It appears that fair valuation and distribution of paid and unpaid work between the sexes will be key to effectively reducing the gender pay gap in Europe,” the German presidency’s website reads.

“After all, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown just how important not only paid but also unpaid work is to the economic stability and well-being of our societies.”

Appearing in front of the European Parliament’s committee on women’s rights and gender equality (FEMM) on 3 July, Germany’s minister for family affairs, senior Citizens, women and youth, Franziska Giffey said that tackling the inequality between men and women on the labour market is one of Germany’s priorities.

When pressed by MEPs on whether Germany plans to make progress on the “Women on Boards” directive, which has been blocked in the Council, Giffey replied that “I will hold targeted discussions and I will fight very strongly to make headway on this file.”


After the mass protests in the United States following the death of George Floyd, the European parliament adopted a resolution in June that acknowledged  that “racial and ethnic minorities face structural discrimination in the EU in all areas, including … employment and education,” and called on “member states to promote anti-discrimination policies in all areas.”
Samira Rafaela (Renew), the co-president of the Parliament’s Anti-Racism and diversity intergroup (ARDI) said that “you can have a woman of colour, [and] LGBTI+ who will have more barriers than other groups.”

“It is only by having an intersectional approach that we will be more inclusive on achieving diversity,” the MEP from Netherlands said in emailed comments.

Rafaela added that implementation, gender mainstreaming and gender budgeting are key to achieving gender diversity.

Asked what is the missing piece in European policy architecture in improving gender diversity in the workplace, Evelyn Regner (S&D), chair of the FEMM committee said that “it is essential to not rely on one measure alone but to have a variety which addresses the different aspects” of gender diversity.

“Yet, equality on paper does not translate into reality most of the time. It is thus essential to create and implement binding measures such as the planned pay transparency directive by the European Commission.”

The Austrian MEP pointed out that the EU needs “to combat stereotypes, harassment affecting women and the pay, pension and care gaps.”

EURACTIV also caught up with Marc Angel (S&D), the co-president of the Parliament’s LGBTI intergroup, who emphasised the responsibility of employers to continue to promote diversity in their workplaces, stay proactive and “stop professional relations with business partners that go against your own principles.”

The Luxembourgish MEP underlined the importance of having LGBTI focal-points as well as “zero tolerance policy for hate speech, discrimination and harassment in the workplace.”

“Of course, it takes courageous managers to do all this,” Angel said, suggesting that companies can implement progressive internal policies even if member state governments lag behind.

“As a very practical example, companies can grant the same benefits to a gay couple in a registered partnership as they give to married straight couples if they are in a country where there is no gay marriage.”

MEP Maria Walsh (EPP), vice-president of the LGBTI intergroup, pointed out that many LGBTI+ couples “still do not enjoy equal rights for taking taking maternity or paternity leave.”

Walsh also said that she is looking at the right to disconnect, that is a worker’s right to be able to refrain from engaging in work-related electronic communications during off hours.

“Citizens who are working from home, particularly women, who are providing care in a household with various children or have older parents living with them, should do not see a deterioration in their career path,” the Irish lawmaker said.

Walsh added that diversity is “not just orientation, colour or creed,” special attention must be paid to citizens with disabilities, as well as mental health issues.

“We are simply not driving the message that a diverse citizen can have a mental health issue and would need support of a different nature,” Walsh said, suggesting that mental health days must be included in sick leave.

In a resolution on the European disability strategy post 2020, the Parliament urged the Commission to ensure that the strategy “will especially promote guaranteed access to employment, … including by ensuring that reasonable accommodation is provided in the workplace, and that persons with disabilities are paid at the same level as employees without disabilities.”

The Parliament also called on member states “to further develop and/or better implement measures that promote the participation of people with disabilities in the labour market.”

May 2020: Commission presents ‘Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025’

June 2020: Commission holds a structured debate ‘Against racism and for more diversity and equity in the EU’

June 2020: European Parliament adopts ‘Resolution on the anti-racism protests following the death of George Floyd’ acknowledging that racial and ethnic minorities face structural discrimination in the EU in all areas, including employment and called on member states to promote anti-discrimination policies in all areas and to develop national action plans against racism.

September 2020: Commission presents ‘Action Plan to counter racism in the European Union’

October 2020: Commission presents ‘Post 2020 EU Framework on Roma Equality and Inclusion Strategies’

November/December 2020: Commission working programme suggests that binding pay transparency legislative measures based on Article 157 TFEU will be published in last quarter of 2020. 

November/December 2020: Commission presents ‘LGBTI Equality Strategy’

December 2020: The discussion and possible adoption of Council Conclusions on ‘Tackling the Gender Pay Gap: Valuation and Distribution of Paid and Unpaid (Care-) Work’ at the EPSCO Council.

Early 2021: Commission to publish its ‘Green paper on ageing’

2021: Commission will present a new strategy for disability in 2021, building on the evaluation of the European Strategy for Disability 2010-2020.

2021: Commission to table the ‘Action Plan To Implement the European Pillar of Social Rights’

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