Gender equality requires tackling stereotypes

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Gender stereotypes are crude simplifications about the character and behaviour of individuals based on their traditional roles and sexual characteristics. It's time the European Parliament brought more pressure to bear on the other EU institutions with a view to tackling this often veiled but highly damaging phenomenon, writes Kartika Liotard.

Kartika Liotard is a Dutch MEP with the European United Left / Nordic Green Left group.

"When I was still a law student in the Netherlands and had just received my driver's licence but didn't have even a quarter of the cash to buy myself a new car, I purchased a scrap Volkswagen Beetle. Proudly, I started it up one day only to watch it fleetingly sputter, and then die. Clearly not ready to say goodbye to my first car, I gathered my courage and screw drivers and fixed my Beetle all by myself.

I repeat, all by myself. I was so impressed with my newly acquired talent, that I immediately knew I had found myself a new hobby. Once, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I was down on a creeper under my boyfriend's car, when I heard footsteps approaching.

A male voice yelled at me: "hey man, could you give me a hand?" I rolled back from under the car and said: "First of all: it's 'hey misses' to you and secondly: "sure, when it comes to fixing cars, I'm your woman!"

Girls as pink glittery dolls; young women as sexual objects; working women as men's assistants; older women as useless and dependent… Stereotypes do not give us accurate information about others and can have extremely damaging effects on girls and women throughout their entire life, leading to discrimination and to socio-economic disadvantages in old age.

They suffocate personal expression, and thwart individual and professional development. The evidence indicates that children learn this kind of typecasting at home, at school, and through the media. In this way, they are passed on from one generation to the next.

Children meet gender stereotypes head-on at a very young age in particular via television and the internet, advertising, and education, shaping their awareness of how girls, boys, men and women should behave. Marketing that targets children clearly show the systematic gender messaging of companies such as toy manufacturers. Principally, this entails a representation of girlhood as requiring an attractive appearance, good manners, and passive behaviour.

Such labelling of girls and women, as well as its steady repetition have been shown to be a key factor in restricting young women’s aspirations solely to those lifestyles and jobs considered "female-appropriate".

Despite the EU’s commitment to equality between men and women, there are significant policy deficiencies on gender-related issues. One of these issues is gender stereotyping.

Next week, I will present a report to the European Parliament's plenary session in Strasbourg, emphasising the need for new action in this area.

Ongoing debate about gender equality issues, and especially the gender pay gap and job precariousness, must take this kind of early-life pigeonholing into account. European women still earn 17% less than men for the same jobs with elderly women particularly affected by the pay gap, as it increases the risk of extreme and persistent poverty once women have reached retirement age. On top of facing pay and pension discrimination, women face much higher rates of precariousness in employment, meaning bad conditions and little or no job security for millions.

As my report (adopted in Parliament's Women's Rights and Gender Equality Committee) points out, stereotyping should be seen within the context of the continued under-representation of women in decision-making. Economic and political management is typically dominated by men, with women vastly outnumbered in parliaments, government cabinets, and company boardrooms.

As long as men dominate the top jobs, the sordid, yet persistent, perception of these roles as "naturally male" will continue to haunt us to everybody's loss – men and women. This problem needs to be decisively tackled.

That's why I'm calling on the Commission to promote quotas in politics and business to help alter perceptions, confront discrimination, and challenge stereotypes to bring better-adjusted, more balanced policymaking.

Women have fought long and hard to question and redefine traditional gender roles. We in the European Parliament must play our role to support this struggle. I am calling on the Commission and member states to use the European Social Fund (ESF) to combat gender stereotypes in different professions through positive action, life-long learning and encouragement for girls to undertake studies in fields which are not traditionally seen as ‘feminine’. Combined with this, we need special career guidance courses at all levels of education and programmes that inform young people about the negative consequences of gender stereotypes.

While gender stereotypes are both the underlying basis as well as the symptom of deeply engrained prejudice against women, all of us, no matter what our gender identity might be, are affected by the stereotypes surrounding us. It's high time the EU provided leadership in embracing a genuine conception of equality that can adequately address the destructive weight of stereotypes.

Education initiatives and legislation would go a long way towards helping to identify and dispute stereotypes. When all's said and done, people are just too complex to have crude tags slapped upon them."

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