Activist: EU must dismantle the ‘Pink Ghetto’

EWL Secretary-General Joanna Maycock during a demonstration. [Plan EU]

This article is part of our special report Women’s day special.

SPECIAL REPORT / The European Union is at a turning policy point: it must choose to lead the way towards a gender equal and sustainable future. Investing in women’s rights and empowerment is the core commitment for a more sustainable, democratic and inclusive world to evolve, said Joanna Maycock in an interview with EURACTIV.

Joanna Maycock is Secretary General of the European Women’s Lobby.

She spoke to EURACTIV’s Editor-in-Chief, Daniela Vincenti

In 60 years a lot has been done on gender equality, but we are not close to parity yet. What are priorities to accelerate equality in 2015?

2015 is a very exciting time for gender equality and women’s rights, and for the women’s movement globally, and in Europe. Twenty years after the Beijing Platform for Action, a fundamental human rights instrument for women and girls was adopted in 1995, the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) has produced its assessment of the continuing discrimination of women and girls in Europe, as witnessed by EWL’s 3000 member organisations.

Our report ‘From Words to Action’ gives the opportunity to learn from twenty years of campaigning. Much has been achieved, but much remains to be done. Despite the fact that equality between women and men is a core value of the EU, our report shows that women and girls still face inequality, violence, discrimination and insecurity. Women and girls can’t wait 20 more years to enjoy their full human rights.

Many of your readers probably think that equality between women and men has already been achieved in Europe – or at the very least is well on its way. The reality is that women still face persisting and serious discrimination: Women are much more likely to be unemployed or to live in poverty due to low paid precarious jobs. The average pay gap in Europe is still 16%, with women having 40% less pension than men. 30% of women in Europe have experienced male violence. Just 19% of Board members of listed companies are women and only 27% of members of parliament. That means that 73% of members of parliament are men. Women continue to experience sexism, sexual harassment and astonishing levels of stereotyping which hinder their personal, professional and political lives in multiple ways.

The European Union, is at a turning policy point: it must choose to lead the way towards a gender equal and sustainable future. Investing in women’s rights and empowerment is the core commitment for a more sustainable, democratic and inclusive world to evolve.

Women’s rights are facing a stronger backlash than ever. Ultra-conservative and religious groups are systematically calling gender equality into question, by attacking women’s sexual and reproductive rights, sexuality education, women’s access to employment and decision-making.

At the same time, a new generation of young feminists is mobilising widely, dynamically tackling new and old forms of violations of their rights. They are angry and completely fed up with this systemic inequality. Feminist economists are challenging the unsustainable and unjust economic system we live in, by proposing new ways of measuring wellbeing and protecting our planet and the next generations.

Do you see new momentum with the new Commission?

It is a disgrace that there continues to be a heavy overrepresentation of men within the European Commission. With just 9 women out of 28 Commissioners, there is actually a lower proportion of women in this commission than in the last one. We do welcome the fact that there is finally a Commissioner with the explicit responsibility for Gender Equality. We have established a fruitful and open dialogue with Commissioner V?ra Jourová. 

There could be a milestone, momentum for more ambitious EU action. 

From where you stand, do you think the new Commission will come up with new proposals to move forward gender equality?

In 2015, the EU will adopt its new Strategy on gender equality and women’s rights. This should be the EU-wide framework for the realisation of women’s rights in the EU. With the 2014 European elections, we saw more MEPs in the European Parliament directly threatening EU policies to promote gender equality and women’s rights. For the EWL, the Strategy should thus deliver a strong political message that equality between women and men is a core priority for the European Union. It must set ambitious goals to accelerate the progress towards equality between women and men, to ensure that women and girls in the EU do not have to wait another 20 years to realise the commitments made by the EU in Beijing 20 years ago.

We urge all the Commissioners to support Commissioner Jourová in her mission to mainstream gender all areas of work and push forward the Women on Boards Directive, the proposed Maternity Leave Directive, and the Anti-Discrimination Directive. We would also like to see the European Commission take leadership on establishing a coordinated, holistic strategy to combat all forms of violence against women.

On average, women in the EU earn 16% less per hour than men. The result is lower pensions and risk of poverty. Is there any way to solve this decades-long injustice?

Women are much more likely to live in poverty and more likely to be unemployed across all age groups. Austerity has been a disaster for everyone, and especially for women. Austerity measures that are implemented all over Europe: cutting social security systems, and reducing public services – all affect women doubly as they are over-represented both as employees in the public sector and as the beneficiaries of public services. Austerity has made it worse, but it is part of a systemic problem that discriminates against women and creates a Pink Ghetto which is hard for women to escape.

Around half the 16% Gender Pay Gap is the so called non-explainable factor and is purely discrimination based on gender.

The gender pay gap, in combination with lower participation of women in the labour market and women being overrepresented in part time, low-paid and precarious jobs, as well as the fact that women are far more likely to take time out of the paid labour market to care for family members all contribute to the unacceptably high gender pension gap of 39%. This means that women’s pensions are on average almost 40% less than men. What is striking is also that this gender pension gap is not decreasing.

EWL has been closely monitoring member states progress on women on boards. Do you see an evolution, in specific countries? Is there any significant trend happening?

From our recent report on women on boards, an evolution can definitely be seen; there are little cracks in the glass ceiling, with faster progress occurring in countries which have introduced binding quotas with strong sanctions, intermediary targets, and regular monitoring. Examples of good practice are Italy and France, and, outside of the EU, Norway and Iceland. However it is time to speed up the progress and therefore we need to look at the fundamental causes of this inequality.

There is a growing frustration about that fact that we seem stuck in inequality. For the European Women’s Lobby, it is more than a business-issue, it is an issue of human rights, of good governance, of democracy. As we have seen from the crisis in the financial sector which has led to widespread recession and inequality, the macho culture and old boys’ clubs making poor decisions in corporate board rooms are dangerous for our democracies and economies. We need a paradigm shift and we need it fast: a new way of looking at things – innovation, complex problem solving, There is a need for feminist leadership: and there is especially a need to get serious about tackling sexism in the workplace and in the media.

We need the EU directive “Improving the gender balance in company boardrooms,” which is certainly a step in the right direction. Ideally though we would like to see a much stronger Directive with hard quotas, tough sanctions, and the inclusion of small and medium companies. We would also like to see binding EU action to increase the number of women CEOs.

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