Recently, we observe increasing feminist trends and movements all over the world, majorly powered by women demanding the same rights and treatments given to men. We also observe a corresponding set of responses and/or accommodations by world organizations and governments, as these latter progressively change or reinforce their policies. The Istanbul Convention, for example, was adopted by the Council of Europe in 2011 and signed by the 28 member states, after a high volume of reported domestic violence . Gender equality has been at the heart of debates in Europe and the world since the 18th century.
Equal rights for women and men, “promoting equal economic independence…, closing the gender pay gap, advancing gender balance in decision making, ending gender-based violence and promoting gender equality beyond the EU.” , these are all part of the objectives and efforts of the European Union towards a better Europe. As the progress towards achieving gender balance is moving forward, this research paper aims at exploring the different policies and strategies put in place by the EU, tackling the following question: “To what extent do European laws to promote gender equality contribute to a narrower gender gap in European politics, and the EU labor market and corporate world ?” Nevertheless, we deem it necessary to start by understanding the genesis of gender requests, now deeply rooted in our society.
The historical debut of women’s movements in Europe can be found during the last quarter of the 18th century, especially during the French Revolution (1789 – 1799). During this latter, the French National Assembly set a human civil rights document which declared that “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights” . However, although women, by the latter, had civil equality, they were denied other rights they demanded. These demands included economic, educational and political rights i.e. the right to education, the right to vote and be represented in political parties and decisions, the right to go into business, to dispose property and amongst others. Such demands were not only fought for in France, but other European countries (Italy, Germany, Dutch Republic, etc.) started following the movement as well. Nevertheless, merely anything happened in women’s favor during the 18th century and the first half of the 19th, whilst most of the revendications were shut down and silenced, until after WWI where countries like Russia began granting women rights like “equality of spouses…, systematic granting of divorce…, protection for pregnant workers, maternity leave, free and easy access to abortion” , and in some other countries, the right to vote.
However, these rights were later revoked or diminished for fear of possible consequences. Women continued to mobilize themselves to obtain voting rights, although without success until the end of the WWII where they slowly started being granted more political rights, work-family balance, abortion and many others (although not in all European countries). By 1957, the European Union issued its first law favoring gender equality, which was equal pay for men and women. Since then, the EU has continuously fought for women’s rights and gender equality, adopting a set of thirteen directives since the 1970s pertaining to equality through “access to work, training, promotions and working conditions, including equal pay and social security benefits, as well as guaranteed rights to parental leave.” Individual countries on the other hand, did not all adopt women rights at the same time.
In 1970 for example, “the Italian Parliament approved a law on divorce, and partially decriminalized abortion in 1978. In England, the Equal Pay Act of 1970 was followed in 1975 by the Sex Discrimination Act and the Employment Protection Act against wrongful termination in cases of pregnancy, and in 1976 by the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act as well as the Sexual Offenses (Amendment) Act, to strengthen women’s rights in the face of sexual violence.”2
European Union Policies and Strategy on Gender Equality
As it can be viewed in articles 2 and 3 of the Treaty of the European Union, articles 8 and 19 of the functioning of the European Union, as well as on article 23 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, gender equality is a fundamental aspect of the EU , as equality between the two genders can be beneficial for the European society as a whole. Firstly, such a balance, as mentioned in EIGE’s study “Economic Benefits of Gender Equality in the European Union”, has positive results on the economy overall. Notably, given that women have more equal opportunities in STEM education and the labor market, the EU’s employment rate could grow by a rate of 0.5-0.8% by 2030. In addition, there could be an increase of the GDP of all Member States .
Finally, as indicated in the research conducted by EPRS, a wider pay gap between the two genders leads to greater risks of poverty, economic dependence and intimate partner violence . Before moving on to analyzing how the EU is working on narrowing the gap between the two genders, it is of importance to refer that despite the EU’s global leading position on gender equality, the European Inequality Index shows that there was only a 5.4 improvement on Member States’ overall average from 2005. Therefore, there is still a long way to go in order to achieve complete equality. In practical terms, the European Union has developed over the years different policies and measures in order to combat inequalities between the two genders. As a result, we will be briefly referring to the evaluation of the previous “Strategic Engagement for Gender Equality” (SEGE), which was developed for the years 2016-2019, in order for us to conceptualize the basis of the new one as well as the difficulties occurring when fighting for gender equality.
In practical terms, the European Union has developed over the years different policies and measures in order to combat inequalities between the two sexes. First, concerning gender-based violence, the EU has set as a requirement to the Member States to provide support to victims of all kinds of violence. In addition, it has facilitated the recognition by other Member States of measures such as restraining orders in order to protect women. Campaigns created by Member States concerning the issue are also being co-founded by the EU. We should also not omit the fact that “at the international level, the EU has signed the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, the Istanbul Convention”.
Finally, the EIGE has been collecting data concerning the topic in order for the Eurostat to develop a survey. As far as equality in decision-making is concerned, the Commission urges Member States and stakeholders to implement a number of measures such as, among others, raising awareness towards the issue and fostering dialogue and learning practices. Furthermore, the “annual report on equality between men and women” created by the Commission analyses the evolution of the issue. It is of importance to mention that the Commission has proposed a legislation on gender balance in company boards, which is still to be adopted. Finally, there is an in-house effort in the Commission for gender quality.
As it is known, on December 1st, 2019 started the Ursula Von der Leyen Commission, the first Commission where its president is a woman. The Commission has made clear that they consider gender equality as a top-of-the list issue to be addressed, and on March 5th, 2020 the “A Union of Equality: Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025” was communicated towards European Union’s main bodies. The implementation of this strategy is based on a dual approach: providing both concrete measures to achieve gender equality as well as strengthen gender mainstreaming. The strategy is structured in 6 pillars: Being free from violence and stereotypes, thriving in a gender-equal economy, leading equally throughout society, Gender mainstreaming and an intersectional perspective in EU policies, funding actions to make progress in gender equality in the EU, addressing gender equality and women’s empowerment across the world.
More specifically, in order to achieve freedom from violence and stereotypes, the strategy is aiming at ending female genital mutilation, forced abortion and forced sterilization, early and forced marriage, so called ‘honor-related violence’ through “legislation and a Recommendation on the prevention of harmful practices”. In order to tackle violence and harassment in the work context, the EU is aiming at “ratifying the ILO convention, implementing the existing EU rules, and adopting from the Commission of a comprehensive legal framework”. Measures to achieve safety online and to protect from and prevent human trafficking are also mentioned. Finally, the EU, with Horizon Europe is planning the prevention of biases in AI.
Concerning equality in an economical context, in order to promote sharing of responsibilities between parents, the EU aims at ensuring the adoption of the Work-Life Balance Directive’s standards from all Member States. The possible gender inequalities that can be found among social and economic policies, taxation and social protection will be tackled through the Structural Reform Support program. It should be mentioned that entrepreneurship and finance’s lack of equal participation of men and women is planned to be tackled through the EU’s cohesion policy. To address inequalities in gender pay & pension, the EU will adopt measures that promote transparency, as well as a “consultation process with the public, the Member States and the social partners.” Pension credits for care-related career breaks are also to be discussed between Member States and stakeholders in order for equality to be achieved in care responsibilities. It is also important to refer to the adoption of measures in order to achieve equality in leadership positions in the EU, such as that of the reintroduction of the Directive that aims at providing gender balance on corporate boards, women participation in the next European Parliament elections and in the current European Commission management positions.
Concerning gender mainstreaming, the Commission has decided to appoint the first ever Commissioner for Equality “as a stand-alone portfolio, and by creating a Task Force for Equality composed of representatives of all Commission services and of the European External Action Service”. Through gender mainstreaming, the EU plans to include gender dimension on all the different issues it deals with (environmental, health, digitalization etc.). As far as funding is concerned, the Commission ensures the inclusion of gender dimension in every budgetary decision as well as the provision of funds for the achievement of goals in the concerned domains. Finally, the communication analyses how the EU is planning on helping for gender equality on an international level .
Overall, through the strategy’s communication it is clear that the Commission has respected the recommendations stated at the evaluation of the 2016-2019 strategy, as they have adopted the gender equality strategy as a Commission communication and Helena Dalli has been nominated as a Commissioner of, among other types of equality, gender equality. The gender perspective on other policy areas (gender intersectionality) seems to be planned to be taken into consideration. It is also important to mention that the number of women MEP’s has increased from 36.5% in the period of 2016-2019 to 41% in the current period, a percentage that is much higher than that of the world’s average – 24.3% .
Despite the obvious progress mentioned above, and the creation of a promising 2020-2025 strategy, there are still many steps to be done in order to achieve gender equality. At the same time, it can be argued that the EU will not reach its objectives unless a forum for gender equality is developed in the Council of European Union. On an article written by Renew Europe, a European political group, the need for such a forum is highlighted, by mentioning that the Anti-Discrimination Directive has been blocked from 2008 and the adoption of the Istanbul Convention is yet to be complete. Finally, the adoption of such a body would lead to more concrete actions and thus results .
Women in EU Politics
One of the greatest fight women faced throughout their movement for equality was to be represented in politics and to obtain voting rights. After a long wave of revolts, women finally obtained political rights during the 20th century. However, EU countries did not all grant these latter at the same time. While Finland for example was the first European country to adopt women’s suffrage in 1906, the last country was Liechtenstein in 1984. Although women were legally allowed to voice their opinion in public, to participate in elections and have political parties, there was still a huge gender gap at the time, although conditions became better with time and until today as the fight continues. In 1979 for example, the first European elected legislature saw about 16.6% of female members, compared to 35.8% in the 2014 elections. In the European Parliament, women constitute 36.1% of the total Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), compared to 31.1% in 2009. This is a better percentage than in many national parliaments of some Member States, as female representation in the European Parliament is 7 points over the European average (29.8%) and 12 points over the world average of national parliaments (24.1%).
However, there is a large disparity between Member States, where countries like Finland have the highest female representation of women in the European Parliament compared to Cyprus which has the lowest female representation. We also see that the percentage of women in the European Parliament is already higher than in National Parliaments, except for countries like Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, Lithuania, Poland and Portugal. Overall, there has been a great improvement of female representation in the European Parliament, not only in terms of MEPs, but also an increased diversity in the bureau composition, political groups and co-chairs, committee chairs, amongst others. However, according to the EIGE, the power and political sector has made the least progress towards reducing gender gaps, compared to other sectors like health, education, work etc. . Between 2005 and 2017, with an overall score of 100 (representing perfect gender balance), Sweden is the only EU country with a score of over 90, for the number of women in political power.
Overall, the 28 Member countries show an increase of about 8.9 between 2005 and 2017. Some other inequalities can be seen in the European Parliament’s Office, where only 5 out of 14 vice presidents and 2 out of 5 quaestors are women. Amongst the political groups sitting at the Parliament, only 2 are led by women. According to Emmanuelle Berretta, “all of the high-ranking financial posts in the EU, which have become free in the European institutions have been awarded to men.” , and the three European institutions (Commission, Council, Central Bank) are still to have a female president. These high disparities illustrate that women’s political representation are not automatically applied after measures and laws are taken by the EU bodies.
Nevertheless, the EU has implemented strategies towards improving gender balance through the help of institutionalized bodies like the EIGE, the expert committee (that advises on gender equality policies), the European Women’s Lobby (EWL), the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, amongst others. These strategies range from strict ones like changes in electoral systems and implementation of gender quotas i.e. the number of women that should be included in a candidate list or number of seats to be allocated to women, to softer ones such as the implementation of training, mentoring, funding and other support systems for women candidates, mostly young women and women from under-represented minority groups. Other initiatives include “the chapter designed for women in the Entreprenueriat 2020 action plan, the organization of a female Business Angels network and the creation of a prize for innovative women.”
Women in EU Labor and Corporate World
Another main area where inequality is observed is in the labor market. Women participate less in the labor market, with 67% of employed women, compared to 79% of men. Despite women sometimes having more qualifications than men, the former feel restricted when having to choose a career due to family and care-giving responsibilities.