EU's gender equality strategy must not fail to address the damaging effects of the COVID-19 crisis on women

The new, long-awaited, five-year strategy should be updated and implemented without delay, to help prevent any further erosion of gender equality caused by the pandemic

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) calls on the European Commission to promptly implement its new Gender Equality Strategy, while tackling the damaging gender impact of the COVID-19 pandemic which has further exacerbated existing social and economic gender inequalities, increasing violence against women and different forms of discrimination against them.

In the opinion adopted at its July plenary session, the EESC stated that the Commission must make sure that the Strategy takes into account the negative repercussions of the crisis for gender equality. The EESC also emphasised that the COVID-19 crisis requires the gender perspective to be incorporated into all Member States' recovery measures.

With COVID-19, women have increasingly been at risk of violence, poverty, multiple forms of discrimination and economic dependence. The strategy should be implemented without delay, to prevent women from continuing to pay the price for the pandemic, rapporteur for the opinion, Giulia Barbucci, told the plenary.

Ms Barbucci stated that the EESC supports the Commission's approach of using gender mainstreaming to incorporate the gender perspective into all fields and all stages of policymaking. This should also include the governance of finance programming mechanisms.

As the crisis has further exposed the glaring gender pay gap, the EESC welcomed the announcement of a Commission initiative to introduce binding measures on gender pay transparency as early as this year and rejected any postponement of such an initiative.

Women represent the majority of workers in the health, social care and the services sector, which has put them in the front line during the pandemic, posing a risk to their health. As jobs occupied by women tend to be underpaid, undervalued and precarious, it is essential to give greater social recognition and economic value to these occupations, which would contribute to reducing pay and other gender-related gaps.

The COVID-19 crisis has also highlighted the need to finance measures in favour of work-life balance, the absence of which is often the culprit, together with persistent stereotypes, for gender-related gaps in the economy.

Women still bear the brunt of care responsibilities at home, which strongly limits their social and economic empowerment and prevents them from receiving fair pay and pensions. The EESC recommends a systematic approach to care policies and urges EU Member States to continue their efforts to increase the supply, affordability and quality of early childhood education and care services.

In the opinion, the EESC puts a strong accent on eradicating violence against women, which has increased during lockdowns: Domestic violence has seen an exponential rise during the confinement, while cyber violence has become a growing threat for women. Member States have no tools to deal with online harassment of women and girls, and the Commission should come up with proposals for this common problem, warned the co-rapporteur Indrė Vareikytė.

The EESC calls upon the Commission to launch initiatives to tackle violence and sexual harassment in the workplace and at home and has repeatedly asked for online harassment and bullying of women to be added to the definition of illegal hate speech.

According to the EESC, civil society organisations can play a vital role in the prevention of violence against women and in the promotion of a gender-sensitive culture, by raising awareness and collecting and sharing good practices. The EESC has repeated its suggestion for an emergency legal fund to be established at EU level, which would provide support to civil society organisations that challenge legislation that violates women's rights in court.

Ms Vareikytė underlined the important role played by the media in creating and perpetuating stereotypes that lead to prejudice against women and create further inequalities. She said that the EESC is calling for a new thematic focus – media and advertising – to be included in the next Gender Equality Index published by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE).

The power of the media to create and perpetuate stereotypes must no longer be underestimated and we have to tackle it. The representation of gender in the media is still stereotyped, and the situation in the advertising sector is even worse. Advertising should promote gender equality in society, and not vice-versa, as is often the case, Ms Vareikytė said. The media should thus adopt codes of conduct and other measures outlawing sexism and damaging stereotypes.

In its opinion, the EESC also calls for various measures to close persistent gender gaps in other fields: it asks Member States to adopt specific measures to improve educational and career guidance to counter gender segregation in education and employment, which currently prevents many girls and young women from choosing a career path that is considered less traditional. The EESC also calls for actions to reduce the digital gender gap and encourage women to enter STEM, AI and ICT sectors, which hold better career prospects and the promise of better pay.

Another persistent shortcoming is the lack of balanced participation of men and women in decision-making. The EESC once again asks the Council to proceed with discussions on the directive on improving the gender balance on corporate management boards.