Inequality persists as EU prepares for Women’s Day


Ahead of International Women’s day, the EU can only do a mea culpa. Gender equality in the 28-country bloc is far from being the norm, as research and data show women remain far more Cinderella than Superwoman.

“Despite 50 years of policies and actions at European level, member states have not yet managed to overcome gender gaps. Thus there is need for further efforts,” said Virginija Langbakk, director of the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE).

A gender equality index published recently by the EIGE shows that women in all walks of life struggle to break through the glass ceiling.

Women’s employment rates remain low, ranging from some 40% to 75%, with the average standing at 75.8% for men and 62.5% for women. Even the gender pay gap stagnates at 16.4% across Europe, meaning women work 59 days for free, until they match the amount earned by men.

Segregation in both the labour market and decision-making has worsened. According to EIGE, women are greatly under-represented in political and economic decision-making, and have scored lower between 2010 and 2013, from 38 to 34, in the context of the crisis.

“If Europe has been promoting gender equality since 1957, a lot still remains to be done. On company boards, in pay, and when it comes to unremunerated housework and pensions, women are still disadvantaged,” insisted Viviane Reding, European Commissioner Vice-President in charge of Justice, Fundamental rights and citizenship.

Reding has pushed through a directive setting a 40% female quota by 2020 on non-executive company boards, where women represent a meagre 17.8% on average. However, the legislative proposal, backed by the European Parliament, is now stuck in the Council of Ministers.

The same is true for another bill on maternity leave, under which the Commission suggested increasing the minimum level of maternity leave in the EU from 14 to 18 weeks, in line with standards developed by the International Labour Organization.

“Further progress is needed if we are to achieve true gender equality. The crisis has also demonstrated how easily the rights that have been acquired can be rolled back. Even a standstill in the gender equality agenda represents a backward step,” said Claudia Menne, from the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).

´Too important to be left to men´

Even though women outnumber men when it comes to education, some sectors remain male-dominated. For example, increasing the number of women in new technology has appeared on the agenda, with European Commissioners getting personally involved.

Neelie Kroes, European Commission vice-president in charge of the digital agenda, seemed outraged that only nine in 100 European app developers are female, and that only 19% of ICT managers and entrepreneurs are women (compared to 45% and 54% respectively in other service sectors).

“Tech is too important to be left to men,” she said, launching a campaign to find the role models to encourage young women to pursue careers in ICT.

Attracting more women to tech careers is an economic imperative, according to a study published this week.

If women held digital jobs as frequently as men, the European GDP could be boosted annually by around €9 billion (1.3 times Malta's GDP), reads the study. Organisations which are more inclusive of women in management achieve a 35% higher return on equity, and a 34% better total return to shareholders.

Gender balance in politics

Like business, the lack of gender balance in politics is also striking. Women are underrepresented both in national and regional parliaments. Only 24% of the members in EU national parliaments are women. In government, the situation is not much better. Only 24% of women are ministers with portfolios.

In a report published last year by the European Parliament, MEP Sirpa Pietikäinen urged member states to require national parties to set quotas and apply rank ordering rules to electoral candidates lists for national and EU elections.

So far, pick up has not been widespread. Voluntary party election quotas have only been introduced in 13 EU member states.

“I hope that the next Commission will continue to build on our efforts to boost the decision-making role of women in all walks of life, from politics to sport. But if we want more women in top jobs, we must also recognise that gender equality starts at home and in school,” said Commissioner Androulla Vassilou, who is in charge of education.

“But we also need to give women more positive role models, which is why the Commission must continue to encourage the public."


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.

Some encouraging trends include the increased number of women in the labour market and their progress in securing better education and training.

However, gender gaps remain and in the labour market, women are still over-represented in lower paid sectors and under-represented in decision-making positions.

The Strategy for equality between women and men represents the European Commission's workprogramme on gender equality for the period 2010-2015. 

Further Reading

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