Gender equality is ‘unfinished business’

women and kids small.jpg

Despite considerable progress in advancing women's roles in politics and business, Europe is struggling to reach full gender parity and quotas are seen as a "questionable" remedy.

As the world celebrates the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, traditional barriers remain high and represent an obstacle for women trying to accede to high-level positions in the public and private sectors alike.

"Gender equality is unfinished business," said French senator Yannick Bodin, vice-president of the women's delegation in the French Senate, speaking last week in the European Parliament.

As the world celebrates the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, traditional barriers remain high and represent an obstacle for women trying to accede to high-level positions in the public and private sectors alike.

"Gender equality is unfinished business," said French senator Yannick Bodin, vice-president of the women's delegation in the French Senate, speaking last week in the European Parliament.

Ten EU countries have over 27% of women in the lower house of parliament, according to EU data, led by Sweden with 45%. But the majority have below 23% and two countries have less than 10% of women members.

The European Parliament scores slightly better. 35% its MEPs are female, and 60% of its officials are women, many of whom are policy experts. 40% of MEPs have high-ranking positions as committee chairs or vice-presidents. But men are still overrepresented among presidents of political groups.

The situation is even more disappointing in governments and the private sector, where only 3% of companies are chaired by a woman, according to a 2010 report on equality between women and men in the EU, which is currently going through the European Parliament.

Towards 'transformative change'

"All the right buttons are being pressed," said Mary Robinson, a former Irish prime minister, referring to the report at an event last week in the European Parliament. "But are we in Europe prepared to really tackle barriers over a ten-year transformative period? Are countries prepared to introduce quotas […] to correct existing imbalances?" she asked.

A lack of adequate financial resources, disproportionate family obligations, a lack of confidence in a predominantly male culture, and the preference of many women to work for civil society organisations whose culture is more friendly and gender sensitive. These are all problems cited by female politicians as hampering women's access to higher spheres.

"We need transformative change if we are going to address these problems," said Robinson.

Because results are mixed, Nicole Fontaine, a former president of the European Parliament, echoed Robinson, stressing that the assembly's report would need to come up with a "fresh dynamic for mobilisation". Even though the European Parliament is faring better than national assemblies, Fontaine stressed that 20 years had lapsed between its women presidents.

Pay gaps overshadow parity

Mobilisation seems to be the card played by the European Commisson, which launched on 5 March the first European Equal Pay Day to highlight the EU earnings gap.

"97 million women in Europe have been working since 1 January, but are only really starting to get paid this week," said Vice-President Viviane Reding, the EU's justice commissioner, launching the initiative.

"The European Equal Pay Day reminds us of how much work needs to be done to close the gender pay gap. Together with member states and social partners, we will seek to significantly reduce the gender pay gap in the EU, so that one day we will no longer need an Equal Pay Day to mark the differences in earnings between men and women."

Progress in reducing the gender pay gap has been slow, the commissioner remarked. The size of the gap ranges from 5% in Italy to 30% in Estonia, according to the latest figures for 2008. This reflects complex and ongoing inequalities in the labour market.

The effect of the gender pay gap on lifetime earnings means that women will also have lower pensions, noted Anne-Sophie Parent, director of AGE Platform Europe. As a result, elderly women are more likely to face poverty: 22% of women aged 65 and over are at risk of poverty compared to 16% of men.

The Greens in the European Parliament complained about what they saw as the EU's failure to act to close the pay gap in Europe. "There is an urgent need for legislative measures at EU level to end pay inequality and we urge Commissioner Reding to come forward with measures as soon as possible," said German Green MEP Franziska Brantner. 

Quotas or not quotas?

For the time being, Viviane Reding is busy fighting to impose quotas in board rooms (see separate article).

Only one in ten board members of Europe's top listed companies are women, according to figures published by the European Commission. The representation of women among CEOs of the biggest companies is even lower, at 3%.

This is despite a recent study, endorsed by Brussels, which shows that a higher presence of women in top jobs has a positive impact on economic growth.

However, recent assessments show that quotas, wherever they are implemented, are not a panacea.

When Norway introduced a law in 2006 stipulating that women had to make up 40% of the boards of publicly traded companies, the move was hailed as a huge step forward.

Five years later the results are mixed, despite companies facing the draconian penalty of dissolution if they fail to comply with the new law.

To avoid the penalty, more than 100 companies have transformed themselves from publicly-owned to privately-held corporations. Responsibilities within the household and raising children are not fairly distributed between the sexes, according to Norwegian analysts.

Commenting on the Norwegian case, the European Women's Lobby noted that the right conditions should be put in place before initiating any kind of law. In Norway, EWL said, the availability of only a small number of women able to reach the top of the ladder created a situation under which just a few women sit on several boards.

In the long run, if women have to prove they are competent, they are therefore "condemned" to diligence and excellence, said Fontaine, "but they know that they will find it inspiring".

Ultimately though, women's participation in high-level decision-making is a question of equality and fundamental rights, noted Finnish MEP Sirpa Pietikäinen (European People's Party; EPP), who will draft a report on women in politics. 

"Equality in society didn't add up as long as the structures of power remained the same," she said. "By involving more women in decision making we make better politics," she added, warning against segregation — always giving women the same political social affairs dossiers.

French EPP MEP Elisabeth Morin-Chatier insisted that the fight for gender equality is a collective one and a societal issue.

Vladimír Spidla, former EU commissioner for employment, social affairs and equal opportunities, sees quotas as the only way to increase the number of women on company boards. As a role model he cited Norway, where a quota for the biggest 500 companies is mandatory.

Speaking before the launch of the Party of European Socialists (PES) campaign, 'It's different for Women', Hungarian MEP Zita Gurmai, president of PES Women, stated that "the European Union must send a signal that the lives of ordinary women are central in our concerns. On the fundamental issue of pensions, the European Commission should be leading the charge in closing the structural gaps between men and women. It is all very well to look at the gender gap in the boardroom, but outside those windows there are gender gaps that continue long into old age".

German European People's Party MEP Angelika Niebler, a member of the Committee of Women's Rights and Gender Equality in the European Parliament, said last week that she sees quotas as an interim solution and a final instrument for companies who don't increase voluntarily the number of female company board members.

By 2015 a quota of 30% should be reached. A European law could be adopted by 2012 if necessary, she said.

Dina Akkelidou from the House of Representatives in Cyprus is also in favour of this two-step approach.

French EPP MEP Elisabeth Morin-Chartier, vice-president of the Committee of Women's Rights and Gender Equality in the European Parliament, stresses that in the past she was reluctant to accept the idea of quotas for women, which she found humiliating. Nowadays she sees no improvements without quotas.

The critical mass of 30% of women in decision-making positions can only be reached via quotas, thinks Amina Gajduskova, vice-president of the Senate in the Czech Republic.

Marlene Rubrecht from the Committee on Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth in the German Bundestag is also in favour of introducing a female quota in politics and in the private sector. She stresses that three parties out of six have a female quota in the German parliament.

Anna Belousovova, chair of the Committee on Human Rights and National Minorities in Slovakia, questioned whether female quotas would really boost the number of competent, high-quality women in meaningful decision-making positions.

Timea Szabo from the National Assembly of Hungary does not think quotas are a wonderful instrument but thinks that they may be the only way to increase the number of women on company boards.

Not only does the number of women in top positions need to be increased via the introduction of quotas, but a cultural change is also needed, said Pia Locatelli, president of Socialist International Women.

Hungarian MEP Lívia Járóka (Fidesz; EPP) said the presence of highly-educated women in leading positions in both the private and public sectors was indispensable.

However, even more emphasis had to be put on improving the situation of those disadvantaged women who face multiple discrimination: such as single and disabled women, as well as women with big families and of minority origin.

For them, the "glass ceiling" blocking their advancement is even lower, she claimed (Editor's note: The expression 'glass ceiling" refers to the invisible barriers which women must overcome to fulfil their everyday ambitions).

Járóka also referred to her recent discussion with European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding, during which the commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship set out her plans to launch thorough surveys on gender parity across the whole range of business and banking.

Mayra Moro Coco, a women's rights expert at ActionAid, said, "today millions of women across the world are claiming their rights but lack of action by EU governments is damaging their cause".

Gender equality is a key political objective for the EU and a central facet of its non-discrimination strategy. It is also considered important for achieving the EU's economic and social goals as enshrined in the EU 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.

Subscribe to our newsletters


Want to know what's going on in the EU Capitals daily? Subscribe now to our new 9am newsletter.