The Juncker Plan must not be a missed opportunity for gender equality

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

steve_jobs.jpg [Flickr/Salvatore Barbera]

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

SPECIAL REPORT / The exclusive focus of the Juncker Plan on physical infrastructure spending and investment in male-dominated industries will further undermine progress towards gender equality, write Giovanni Cozzi and Jerome De Henau.

Giovanni Cozzi is Senior Economist at the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and Jerome De Henau is Senior Lecturer at The Open University.

The €315 billion Investment Plan for Europe proposed by European Commission President Juncker represents a good point of departure from the usual and exclusive focus on fiscal containment and public debt reduction. However, nothing is mentioned in this Plan on investment in social infrastructure, which is crucial to achieving gender equality and a more sustainable economy. The social infrastructure includes all the activities and services that meet the needs of an economy to maintain and reproduce its productive capacity – but also quality of life and well-being – through healthcare, education, childcare and long-term care.

The impacts of austerity policies on women

First, cuts in government expenditure have led to a further deterioration of female-dominated public sector jobs and pay. Second, recruitment freezes or job cuts have also resulted in increased working intensity for those remaining in employment, and women have been disproportionally been affected by such changes. Third, cuts in care-related spending and support for care costs and family benefits have hit women in the labour market in particular. Many have reduced their work commitments or have left the labour market entirely as a result of such increases. Ultimately, as highlighted by the UK Women’s Budget group, these cuts have reduced employment opportunities for women and have made it harder to combine earning a living and taking care of families.

In such an environment where women have been hardly hit by the economic crisis and its policy responses, we argue that Juncker’s Investment Plan for Europe should also focus on investing in social infrastructure for ensuring a balanced and sustained economic recovery.

Achieving a caring economy

Investing in care services is not only essential. It is a more effective way of generating employment than simply investing in physical infrastructure. Indeed, the main characteristics of care and education services are that they are very labour-intensive, female-dominated, and rely little on import goods so that for a given amount of investment, more jobs can be created locally than in physical infrastructure. Further, as many women are currently constrained by gender norms to provide unpaid care or to rely on informal economy care, more employment could be freed up by reliving them from such constraints, if quality care services are provided. More men would also be incentivised to provide more of these services (unpaid and paid).

Therefore, a long-term recovery that would not only be more gender-equitable but also more sustainable should focus its efforts on achieving a caring economy, where care for people as well as for the environment is the central objective. This means that any progressive investment plan for Europe should not only focus on investing in physical, and in particular green, infrastructure, but also on social infrastructure.

An important first step towards a more gender equitable approach would be to consider spending in health, care and education services, and in any other type of social infrastructure, as investment – and not just as current expenditure that adds to public deficits – as it builds and sustains the social and human capital of our economies in the long-run. As such, this type of investment, supported by public funds, should play a much more prominent role in any investment plan for Europe rather than being sidelined, as is currently the case in the Juncker Plan.

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