Another 100 years to wait for gender equality? We deserve better

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

French feminists and their supporters hold posters and placards during their rally for gender equality on Place de la Republique in Paris on 8 March 2017. [EPA/IAN LANGSDON]

At the current pace, it will take more than a century for women to become equal to men in Europe, despite the general progress made on gender equality on the European soil, writes Indrė Vareikytė.

Indrė Vareikytė is a delegate of the Lithuanian Youth Council at the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). She is the rapporteur of the EESC’s recent own-initiative opinion “Gender equality issues”.

Throughout its history, the EU has been a global leader in advancing women’s rights.  Yet in the last decade, we have begun to witness a visible and organised backlash in gender equality and human rights across Europe.

In many areas, including pay, pensions and employment opportunities, progress towards equality has either stalled or gone into reverse.

If attitudes do not change, daughters of future generations will have fewer rights than us, the women of today.

And it needs to be said that we are talking about half of the population of the EU here – yet only 67% of this half work.  Of all entrepreneurs, just 31% are women. They are still massively under-represented in political and economic decision-making bodies or in diplomatic circles.

Due to gender stereotypes, they are still much less likely to get STEM education and find a job in growing and better-paid areas of employment requiring STEM and ICT skills.

The goal to eliminate the gender pay gap was established 60 years ago in the Rome Treaty, but we are still talking about how to do it.  Meanwhile, it keeps looming large at around 16% whereas the gender pension gap, at a staggering 38%, threatens many women with old age poverty.

The EU must step up its efforts and make gender equality an overarching stand-alone goal and link it to all policies, actions and future financial frameworks, in order to protect it from drowning in the void of secondary objectives and check-list bureaucracy.

We will not succeed without such a clear commitment, because previous experiences have shown that success in one or a few areas cannot compensate for losses in others.

100 years after women first obtained the right to vote, they deserve a clear, ambitious and binding strategy and action plan spanning five years and requiring every possible effort by Member State governments, EU institutions, civil society and the private sector to tackle all aspects of gender equality effectively at the same time.

The timing for bold steps has never been better. The majority of Europeans (both female and male) think that gender equality is crucial for a fair and democratic society (91%), for the economy (87%) and for them personally (84%).

Moreover, the share of EU citizens who would like the EU to intervene more in this policy area has risen by 10% (from 55% to 65%) since 2016. This is the clearest possible mandate to act given by Europeans in the history of the EU.

Gender equality is not only a moral issue and a human right – every aspect of our lives depends on it, be it by allowing more women to become economically active on equal conditions to men, creating a better environment for family members to share the load, or simply by reducing the psychological burden from the primary earners in the households.

Let’s not forget the economic factor of gender equality: the world loses €140 trillion in wealth because of the fact that women don’t participate fully in the labour market, and are not equally paid to men. In simple terms, it is an amount of money, which would be enough to cover free health care, increase pensions, provide free education and other public services.

It is also time to broaden the spectrum and pay more attention to previously overlooked areas, such as the vital role played by the media in promoting gender equality – it is crucial to start acknowledging the consequences of gender stereotypes produced by media content, as well as of gender-stereotyped marketing to children.

To kickstart the new and fresh approach to gender equality in the EU, the European Economic and Social Committee has just adopted an own-initiative opinion, where we overview the issues women face today in the EU and provide recommendations on how to solve them.

Moreover, we strive to promote the importance of sharing our good experiences by providing an Annex with a list of some of the best practices from all over Europe and the world.

And last but not least, the EESC has this year dedicated its flagship Civil Society Prize to the fight for gender equality and the empowerment of women. It will honour individuals and civil society organisations whose innovative projects and initiatives aim to break gender stereotypes and fight for equal treatment s of women and men in all spheres of economic and social life.

We, Europeans, can all benefit from gender equality. So why should we sit idly for another century with hopes that gender equality will improve naturally by itself? I believe we deserve better.

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