EU seen as dragging its feet on gender equality

women_day.jpg [Spanish Feminist/Flickr]

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

SPECIAL REPORT / On the eve of International Women’s Day on Sunday (8 March), the EU is seen as dragging its feet on fulfilling its promise on gender equality.

Last week, Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, has called gender equality a “moral imperative” that would also act to bring about a “more profitable global economy”.

The ‘morale imperative’

Lagarde said that it is important to demonstrate to policymakers and politicians that equality in the workplace “actually makes economic sense,” and that a level playing field can spark “more growth,” as well as bring about a “more diverse society,” that can be “much more profitable from the global economic point of view.”

The EU has made equality between women and men one of its founding values in 1957. Since then anti-discrimination legislation has been adopted and subsequent strategies have been flashed out. Three years ago, Viviane Reding, the then Commissioner in charge of Justice and fundamental rights even pushed for gender quotas on company boards, arguing it made perfect economic sense.

>> Read: Gender quotas: Bad for business or a ‘necessary evil’?

However, the legislation has been blocked for months in the European Council.

A report published last week by the European Women’s Lobby shows that overwhelmingly, the most effective way to increase the representation of women in decision-making positions – and in this case, on company boards – is through binding legislation with regular monitoring, intermediary targets and strong sanctions.

“Europe as a whole is dragging its feet and making progress that is all too slow,” said Joanna Maycock, EWL Secretary-General. “There is a growing frustration about the fact that we seem stuck in inequality,” she added.

Dangerous trend: the Pink Ghetto

“A lack of diversity has proven itself to be dangerous for our democracies, our societies and our economies. We need a paradigm shift and we need it fast. A new way of looking at things,” she insisted.

Since the Commission proposed the law, cracks in the glass ceiling have started to show. More and more companies are competing to attract the best female talent. Since October 2010, the share of women on boards has risen by 7.6%. But that is not enough.

The Commission is expected to draft a new strategy reviewing priorities of the current gender equality strategy and evaluating progress made.

According to the gender NGOs, 2015 is a highly symbolic year for women’s rights as it marks the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, which underlined the need for measures to ensure women’s equal access to and full participation in power structures and decision-making.

V?ra Jourová, Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, said in a recent op-ed that the EU has made progress on many aspects of gender equality but many inequalities remain.

In addition to the gender pay gap of 16% on average, women continue to work more unpaid hours than men at home. Women are also still overrepresented in lower paid sectors in the labour market, and under-represented in decision-making positions, she added.

“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,” Maycock told EURACTIV.

To give a clear signal to the Commission, the European Parliament is drafting its own-initiative report on the post 2015 strategy for gender equality. Rappporteur Maria Noichl said in an interview with EURACTIV that Brussels must adopt clear targets and effective monitoring mechanisms to tackle gender disparity.

The draft report urges the executive to consider the objectives of the future strategy as an aspect of the European Semester and to insert a gender perspective in the country-specific recommendations and the Annual Growth Survey.

Italy worse than Nicaragua

It is unconceivable – activists say – that some European countries fare worse than some non-developed countries.

According to the most recent World Economic Forum Gender gap index, Italy, Europe’s fourth largest economy, has a bigger gender gap than Nicaragua, Mozambique and Botswana.

The index reveals Nordic countries are the best places for women to live. Iceland, for the sixth year running, topped the global chart, followed by Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

Economic powerhouse Germany came 12th, let down, like many countries, by women’s participation in politics. Croatia, 55th in the 142-country index, was one of just six nations whose gender gaps have grown since 2005.

Unblocking negotiations

One of Commissioner Jourová’s tasks in 2015, and a personal priority, she said, is the unblocking of negotiations on the EU’s anti-Discrimination directive.

“Discrimination has no place in our union,” she said.

According to the report Fair Play: More Equal Laws Boost Female Labour Force Participation, published last week by the IMF, restrictions on women’s rights are strongly associated with gender gaps in labour force participation, which can negatively impact a country’s GDP.

Alessia Mosca, S&D MEP: "In Italy, since we have the quota law, figures prove that the quality and performance of boards improved. We need to use these means, quotas, to achieve a real change of culture."

Karin Raguin, Europe Coordinator at Business and Professional Women, pointed at the lack of transparency in the processes of board promotions. "Women are assumed unavailable. How are the boards formed? This is intangible. It’s not only about business, if it wasn’t good for business would we do it? Yes of course."

Monika Ladmanova, adviser on gender for Commissioner V?ra Jourová said that the directive on women quota on boards is not only a proposal,  it is part of path to real change."

"Better communication, explanation, a narrative is needed to explain that true gender equality is imperative. The Commissioner is talking with stakeholders and Member States to come to an agreement very soon," she said.

Gender equality in employment was included in the Treaty of Rome singed in 1957. The first piece of secondary EU legislation in the field was the Equal Pay Directive of 1975, which prohibited discrimination on grounds of gender to all aspects of remuneration.

Currently, gender equality legislation are the recast of the Gender directive of 2006 and the 2004 Directive implementing the principle of equal treatment between men and women in the access of goods and services.

In November 2012, the Commission has proposed a directive on gender balance on company boards, setting a 40% quota of women on non-executive directors. The text is stuck in the Council.

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