Fighting the fog: battle for equal pay may be best won by denouncing stereotypes and increasing pay transparency

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If the Commission's Action Plan to tackle the persistent pay gap between men and women yields no results by the end of 2019, the EESC may decide to call for stronger, more binding measures

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) backs the Commission's efforts to reduce the 16.3% gender pay gap in the EU, but is proposing further action to address all the factors underlying the wage differences, with a special emphasis on denouncing long-established social and cultural stereotypes which determine educational and career choices for women.

In its opinion on the Commission's communication on an EU Action Plan 2017 – 2019  on tackling the gender pay gap, the  EESC also stressed the importance of pay transparency and pay audits in companies. It further urged the Commission to start collecting individualised data in order to produce more accurate statistics on female poverty which is often masked due to the fact that data are collected per household and not individually.

More precise figures on wages would allow the social partners to enter into informed negotiations which are, according to some estimates, of enormous importance when it comes to reducing the pay gap, the rapporteur of the opinion, Anne Demelenne, said, adding that the pay gap is most significant in the lowest paid jobs insufficiently covered by collective bargaining.

Social partners have a decisive role to play here because estimates show that a one percent increase in social dialogue brings down the gender pay gap by 0.16 percent, Ms Demelenne said.  A 100% increase in collective and social bargaining would then perhaps put an end to the pay gap, she argued, although admitting there were many other factors at play.

Indeed, in its communication the Commission identified eight strands of action aimed at eliminating persistent wage differences between men and women. They included uncovering inequalities and stereotypes, combating segregation in occupations, making better use of women's skills, improving the application of the equal pay principle and alerting and informing about the gender pay gap.

And the figures are alarming. As well as the pay gap being stuck at around 16 percent, the pension gap rose to 38% in 2015, leaving women far more likely to experience poverty in old age. In 2014, 59.6% of women were employed, compared to 70.1% of men of working age. The Europe 2020 strategy set the target of 75% of both men and women in work in 2020.

Women also make up two-thirds of part-time workers who describe themselves as underemployed, meaning they want to increase their working hours.

According to a Eurofound report, it is however estimated that the gender employment gap is costing the EU the equivalent of almost 3% of its GDP each year, or some EUR 370 billion.

The co-rapporteur of the opinion, Vladimira Drbalová, said that major progress would come from women entering better paid sectors such as science, ICT, transport or construction.

There is a Commission survey saying that if women were represented in IT sectors to the same extent as men, GDP would go up by nine billion euros in the EU, she maintained. This is why women should free themselves from stereotypes and open themselves to the sectors of the future.

Both the rapporteur and co-rapporteur agree there are stereotypes when it comes to education and training, which then lead to labour market segregation.

Ms Drbalová found that insisting on transparency alone would not move things forward, and reported on the many businesses that were already trying to ensure gender neutral pay systems.

In the Committee's view, Member States have a decisive role to play, as they should increase their provision of child and elderly care facilities, thereby securing a better work-life balance.

The austerity measures which followed the economic crisis resulted in less investment in social infrastructure, such as child and elderly care facilities, leaving women with fewer choices in terms of combining work and family commitments, and forcing them to drop out of the labour market or to accept lower paid jobs.

In this respect, the EESC's opinion insisted on the need for additional funds to be secured within the Multiannual Financial Framework to implement the Commission's Action Plan as a whole.  As regards financing social infrastructure, social investments are also paramount and  the "golden rule" should apply to them everywhere.

The EESC hopes that with the current favourable economic climate and with the European Pillar of Social Rights being integrated in this process, the Commission's efforts will bear fruit. If not, the Committee may consider asking the Commission to take further action.

If we see that things are stagnating, if there is no improvement by the end of 2019, we will need more binding measures. We may advise the Commission to propose legislative and non-legislative measures. With incentives, but also with penalties, why not, Ms Demelenne concluded.