EU’s new gender equality plan gets mixed response

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The European Commission's new five-year strategy for gender equality in the EU – which keeps company board quotas on the agenda – has been widely welcomed, but some have criticised it for a lack of concrete measures.

The 2010-2015 strategy, unveiled on Tuesday (21 September), aims to translate the principles of the Commission's Women's Charter into specific measures to boost female potential and contribute to the EU's wider economic and social goals.

The plan is based around five key priorities: getting more women into the job market, equality in senior positions, promoting female entrepreneurship, equal pay (women earn around 18% less than men across the EU on average) and tackling gender violence.

An annual 'Gender Equality Dialogue' will assess the implementation of the strategy, comprising stakeholders from the EU institutions, European social partners and civil society.

''Europe has led the world by example in terms of gender equality by including the principle of equal pay for equal work into the Treaty of Rome in 1957," said EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding. "We can do this again today regarding the participation of women in decision-making and the fight against gender-based violence."

Doubts

However, some have expressed doubt about the new strategy, questioning whether it will be fully implemented and result in concrete action.

The European Women's Lobby (EWL), the umbrella organisation of women's associations across the EU, voiced concern about absence of new legislation and binding measures and wants the Commission to move beyond rhetoric.

''A political commitment for progress on behalf of the Commission is of course very welcome; at the same time, we must move beyond rhetoric on this issue. First of all, member states need to implement the legislation already in place, and the Commission needs to monitor this process and take legal action when countries are in violation of their obligations,'' said EWL Secretary-General Myria Vassiliadou.

Bulgarian MEP Antonyia Parvanova of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) also criticised the plan for being heavy on rhetoric but somewhat light on action.

''While I notice plenty of vocabulary such as 'promoting', 'welcoming', 'reporting' and 'considering', I am concerned that there is not enough concrete action being proposed,'' she stated.

German MEP Franziska Brantner (Greens/EFA) called on the EU to live by its own rules, referring to the recent male-heavy ambassadorial appointments for the External Action Service by EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton.

''Reding and the Commission should practice what they preach. Quotas for company boards are right, but it is strange that the EU sets up a foreign service with 28 new ambassadorial posts and only six are occupied by women. Perhaps Viviane Reding should explain to her colleague Ashton what modern institutions and businesses look like,'' stated the MEP.

Reding eyeing company board quotas

Viviane Reding is still considering the establishment of gender quotas on company boards as part of the strategy, she stated on Tuesday (21 September).

In July, EURACTIV reported that Reding was not ruling out the introduction of EU legislation to tackle gender imbalances in decision-making in the private sector. Currently, just 10% of company board members are women.

The commissioner will now decide on the issue after meeting European business chiefs next year. ''I have not been an advocate of quotas for women in senior business posts in the past, but given the lack of progress in this area, we might in the future have to consider taking initiatives at the European level,'' she stated.

''I plan to meet with the chief executives of major publicly listed European companies in spring 2011 to discuss the situation and the scope for determined self-regulation. Depending on the outcome of this dialogue with industry, I will consider whether further initiatives will be necessary in 2012,'' she added.

Positions

The European Women's Lobby (EWL) welcomed Reding's announcement that she is considering quotas to get more women into boardrooms.

''Progress towards the equal representation of women and men in decision-making has been frustratingly slow, and we are very happy to see the Commission taking the lead and considering the introduction of binding measures to change this. We hope this will also apply to the public sector, starting with the European institutions themselves,'' stated EWL Secretary-General Myria Vassiliadou.

German MEP Franziska Brantner (Greens/EFA) said that the enforcement of boardroom quotas will be a ''test case'' for the EU and called for legislative action.

''The economy has repeatedly promised to get women onto supervisory boards through voluntary commitments. Unfortunately, so far this has achieved almost nothing. Therefore we Greens think it is high time to intervene with legal measures,'' she said.

Bulgarian MEP Antonyia Parvanova (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), author of a recently-adopted report on social integration in the European Parliament, said that the ALDE group ''is committed to working actively on this agenda, making sure the Commission's strategy does not remain a paper document but is translated into concrete legislative and policy initiatives to be implemented'.'

British MEP Marina Yannakoudakis of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group was satisfied with the Commission's plan but hoped it would not interfere with national policies or result in EU legislative action. "The EU's role is to facilitate measures that assist national governments in promoting gender equality. But it must stop short of interfering in social policy or the employment law of national governments."

"The EU can cajole, it can facilitate, it can encourage national governments to take action and it can shame those that do not. However, in doing so it must not override national governments or introduce new legislation, which often has the negative effect of reducing a woman's right to choose."

Background

Gender equality is a key political objective for the EU and a central facet of the non-discrimination strategy. It is also considered important for the EU's economic and social goals as part of the EU's 2020 blueprint for sustainable economic growth.

The Roadmap for equality between women and men 2006-2010 defines existing areas and proposes new areas of action, namely: equal economic independence for women and men, reconciliation of private and professional life, equal representation in decision-making, eradication of all forms of gender-based violence, elimination of gender stereotypes and promotion of gender equality in external and development policies.

Politically, the Barroso II Commission has also taken a strongly pro-equality line. When putting together his team, Barroso pushed member states to nominate female commissioners, yet the number of women chosen (nine out of 27) ended up matching that of the previous term. In Europe, only 24% of national MPs and 27% of government members are female.

Timeline

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