The work-life balance directive is only a few steps away from becoming law after the European Parliament and EU member states reached political agreement in January. The new rules will boost women’s representation in the workplace while securing at least 10 days of paid parental leave for fathers.
The new measures were praised all-around as a major achievement and an important step towards gender equality during a EURACTIV event held on Wednesday (27 February).
The directive introduces the right to at least 10 working days of paid paternity leave for fathers around the time of birth or adoption. During that time, fathers should be paid at no less than the level of sick pay, according to the new rules. Furthermore, the directive adds two months of non-transferable paid leave to the existing four for parental leave.
In addition, the regulation introduces the possibility for working parents to request an adjustment to their working patterns, through remote working or more flexible schedules.
“In modern times, we should get a work-life balance approach for men too,” said Agnes Jongerius, vice-chair of the European Parliament Committee for Employment and Social Affairs.
“It’s not a women’s issue anymore,” Jongerius insisted. “Europe is here pushing for a much more modern way of work,” she said.
Genuine gender balance in Europe is still a long way off, however. The gender pay gap reaches 17% on average, and women are still significantly more likely to work in worse paid jobs than men. They tend to have part-time contracts, which later result in a pension gap that will leave them in a more fragile financial position than retired men.
“I don’t think we speak enough about the gender pension gap,” said Katarina Ivankovic-Knezevic, director at the European Commission’s department for employment.
The work-life balance aims to turn carers into a genderless issue, by allowing men to benefit from a more flexible way of work.
For speakers at the EURACTIV event, work-life balance should definitely not be considered as a women’s issue.
“If everybody had access to the same [parental leave] policy, we would be able to encourage men to take them,” said Michelle Maynard, Chief People Officer at Aviva France, a multinational insurance company.
“This would lead to a cultural change,” agreed MEP Agnes Jongerius.
“The directive can improve gender equality in the long-term,” said Erika Koller, a member of the European Economic and Social Committee. It will have a positive economic impact as women will be better positioned to take part in the labour market, she added.
The work-life balance directive is the first concrete result of the European Pillar for Social Rights that the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, launched in November 2017.
But now another challenge begins: ensuring the transposition of the legislation into national law. “We hope that the transposition is smoother and quicker than ever,” Ivankovic-Knezevic said.
As in many other issues, the national frameworks of the EU28 differ significantly across this area. “With European legislation, we set the minimum standard,” Ivankovic-Knezevic explained, “nothing prevents member states from giving more”.
“It is important for those who do not have standards to have them now,” she stressed. “If the EU level can push in the right direction let’s do that,” Jongerius supported.
The role of the private sector
Often, companies see social measures as a financial burden. However, promoting work-life balance and diversity can also be a conscious business decision.
“We see this as a strategic imperative for any global businesses nowadays,” said Michelle Maynard form Aviva France. Aviva has been publishing its own gender pay gaps reports as a way to better know themselves and therefore being able to tackle the issues and have been granting 10 weeks of paid parental leave to its employees even before it was mandatory.
This has helped to attract more women into the company but “it is not a silver bullet in itself, it has to be part of a much more holistic approach,”Maynard said.
“I think some businesses might decide to retain talent because they recognise that actually having diverse workforce brings a positive impact,” Aviva’s Chief People Officer added, but “it would be unlikely to do so without the support of the legislation.”
Katarina Ivankovic-Knezevic called to “embrace the change the work-life balance will bring” and hoped that the next Commission would continue or even enhance the Social Pillar agenda.
“Before the elections, we need to show that Europe can be positive. This is an example,” Jongerius pointed out.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon and Samuel Stolton]