EU rights watchdog: Challenging gender stereotypes begins at home

Legislation is only part of the solution. We need a mix of legislative and non-legislative instruments to tackle persistent gender inequalities, especially in advancing women in high-level positions, but that has to start from the grassroots, says Michael O’Flaherty.

Professor Michael O’Flaherty is Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights.

O’Flaherty spoke to EURACTIV’s Editor-in-Chief, Daniela Vincenti.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, one cannot forget that breaking the glass ceiling is still a challenge in Europe. Do you see any positive evolution?

You are absolutely right to point to the challenges, but we are moving forward. We now have a European Commissioner with “gender equality” in the title for the first time: Věra Jourová is the current EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality.

There is also a proposed directive on increasing the proportion of women on corporate boards. However, the reality is that when looking at the labour market, the glass ceiling remains strong. Employment rates for women remain low. In addition, women are more often working part-time, for lower wages and in less prestigious jobs.

At home, women still do the lion’s share of housework. As a result, when time spent in unpaid work is taken into account, women have longer working weeks with more multi-tasking demands placed on them than many men.

In a recent FRA survey, the agency points out that 3 out of 4 women in high-ranking positions have suffered sexual harassment at least once in their professional life. This is a stunning finding, considering legislation is in place to punish perpetrators. Why are women still so vulnerable in the workplace?

We need to keep in mind that it is not exclusively the FRA’s findings and recommendations that can make a difference. It is for policymakers to come up with the best policy responses for this type of violence.

FRA’s survey on violence against women showed that in all EU member states, many women do not report their experiences of abuse to the authorities. As a result, the majority of violence against women continues to be hidden and perpetrators are not confronted.

Therefore, different avenues for highlighting and combating violence against women need to be explored further. Gender roles that reproduce old stereotypes, and women’s exposure to the risk of sexual harassment in different settings such as the workplace, continue to have a negative impact on the lives of all women.

One cannot forget that in order to become a manager, women may need to challenge existing stereotypes and gender roles. They may also work in more male-dominated environments where they are exposed to greater risks of sexual harassment.

At the same time, women in top positions may be more aware of gender inequalities and what constitutes inappropriate behaviour at work.

Your research shows that in Nordic countries, considered at the forefront on gender equality, women have suffered more in terms of sexual harassment than southern countries. How do you explain that?

There is no single explanation. It is probably due to a combination of several factors that need to be considered. This includes whether it is acceptable for women in certain societies to talk to other people – including researchers – about their experiences of violence and harassment.

For example, Scandinavian countries have come a long way towards gender equality, and have made progress in addressing violence against women. This means that awareness and public engagement with these issues is higher than in some other countries.

In many other countries, the subject of violence against women is still not something that can be easily talked about – which means that reporting rates – even in surveys – are low.

Another possible explanation relates to women’s different levels of exposure to risk of violence. Southern countries still have much lower employment rates among women, compared with Scandinavian countries.

We face the sad reality that as more women work, their exposure to sexual harassment also rises. In those countries where women expect to participate fully in society, their risk of violence – in certain situations – can increase.

The Nordic countries that are ranked highest in terms of gender equality tend also to have higher prevalence levels of violence against women. Therefore, it could be suggested that when women gain more equality and start to challenge traditional gender roles – for example, by going out more at night to socialise, by being in work, by not staying in violent or otherwise abusive relationships – then they are more at risk of violence.

However, it is society’s reaction to violence against women in diverse settings that needs to be addressed, rather than ‘blaming’ women for their heightened exposure to violence.

In addition, alcohol has always been linked to higher levels of violence. Different drinking patterns in EU countries, in particular the culture of binge drinking, can also play a role in exposure to violence – both for women and men.

Finally, when looking at violence against women it is also important to look at the overall violent crime rate in a country, which can help to contextualise certain patterns of violence. These factors all need to be looked at, together with others, to try and explain different rates of violence.

What is not working in EU gender equality legislation?

FRA does not work on gender equality legislation. This field of expertise is covered by EIGE and the Commission.

A few years ago, the European Commission pushed for gender quotas, thinking that they would be the solution to bring more women in top level positions, even though that was only for non-executive boards. Would that help to create a level playing field for women in the workplace?

Gender quotas have a role and have shown to have a beneficial impact. The Commission proposal for a Directive is an important step forward to ensure that women and men have equal opportunities at the highest levels of corporate decision-making. It is one of the Commission’s objectives to reach a 40% share of women in economic leadership positions.

There are several examples at member state level, which show that legislative quotas remain the driving force to increase the proportion of women on company boards. But other measures are still needed to address issues that lead to inequalities. The Commission’s strategy for equality between women and men, which expired at the end of 2015, has been followed-up by the Commission’s strategic engagement for gender equality 2016-2019.

The strategic engagement covers, in a nutshell, the following areas: (1) equal economic independence, (2) equal pay for equal work, (3) equality in decision making – the proposal for a Directive to improve gender equality balance among non-executive directors of companies was a key action in this regard, (4) ending gender based violence, (5) promoting gender equality beyond the EU.

We need to continue our efforts at all levels, at EU level and member state level, and promote the key actions identified within this framework to advance equality between women and men.

Is anti-discrimination legislation unable to deliver? Does it need to be reformed?

Legislation is only part of the solution. We need a mix of legislative and non-legislative instruments to reach the objectives.

Particular attention needs to be paid to specific needs of groups facing multiple disadvantages, for example, migrant women, Roma or disabled women. We need to incorporate a gender-equality perspective in all EU activities and a gender focus in our data collection.

FRA does this in its data collection on migrants, Roma and other minorities. These are particularly vulnerable groups which are often excluded from data collection. When we develop indicators, set targets and monitor progress, we need to ensure that these groups are included.

There are only three women leading EU countries out of 28. Isn’t it there the root of the problem? Decision-makers are not practicing what they preach, don’t they?

It is an appalling figure, you are right. But take a look at a recent example of the results of the introduction of gender quotes, such as the last Irish general elections.

The February elections had almost twice the number of women running for office compared to 2011. Decision-makers have a responsibility to set a good example. At the same time, they are themselves either elected directly or through a process that is led by political parties. Therefore advancing women to decision-making positions has to start from the grassroots level, and we need measures that promote better gender equality in society as a whole.

If you had to make a prognostic based on what we have achieved so far and what still needs to be done, would you say that the next generation will be better or worse off in term of parity in the workplace?

There have been continuous achievements in the past years; women’s employment has reached the highest level ever recorded (64% in 2014). Women’s participation in decision-making has increased. The proportion of women in national parliaments and governments has also risen.

However, this trend is offset by persistent inequality in other areas such as in terms of salaries. In view of rising unemployment of young people and vulnerable groups, such as migrants after the economic crisis, we need to be careful that reducing inequalities by closing the gender pay gap does not result from lowering wages overall, but from increased chances and participation of women.

The FRA survey was the first time we have collected comparative data on sexual harassment. I am optimistic that discussions about these results, together with continuous implementation of legislation and measures against sexual harassment, will increase awareness and protection of women at the workplace in the future, and that the next generation of women will experience greater equality and opportunities than their mothers and grandmothers.

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