Gender equality: Action must follow on commitments

Anne Demelenne / Elizabeth Gosme / Zoe Lanara-Tzotze / Marion Hannerup / Stefano Palmieri

EESC debate takes stock and discusses steps to take

It is high time to step up efforts on gender equality in the European Union, civil society organisations stressed at a public debate on The Benefits of Gender Equality for the European Economy, held by the ECO section of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) on 29 November. Political and societal commitment on gender equality must be renewed. However, this would not be enough. To move forward and ensure effective implementation of EU gender equality policies, all sections of societies have to engage in the process and commitments have to be followed by deeds.

Equality between women and men is a fundamental value and objective of the European Union, enshrined in its treaties and commitments, and it holds untapped benefits for the European economy, said Stefano Palmieri, ECO section president, opening the debate. Gender equality can contribute to economic growth and sustainable development, and thus to the wellbeing of all European citizens, he added. Further steps to address persistent gender gaps need to be taken.

Analyses have shown that gender equality would go hand in hand with higher levels of competitiveness, productivity and economic growth, EIGE director Virginija Langbakk affirmed. At present, progress on gender equality is, nevertheless, uneven amongst Member States and its pace is generally slow as shown by the annual Gender Equality Index of the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE).

Guest speakers and participants identified possible reasons for the rather slow progress on gender equality and discussed potential solutions. According to them, the reasons lay within the fields of culture, care, education and pay transparency.

Stereotypes are deeply rooted in societies. They have an influence on choices not only on education and training, but also recruitment and promotion. Low female employment rates in the STEM sector (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and underrepresentation of women in the private sector and top management are consequences. Speakers called for a shift in mindset across society.

Marion Hannerup, deputy director general of the Confederation of Danish Industry, noted that some private businesses, for instance in the ICT section, also need to change their corporate culture to attract female employees. Increased employment of women in private businesses is important for business performance. She presented good practices to that end, including training to address unconscious bias, leadership and mentoring programmes for talented women, highlighting female role models, encouraging women's talents and introducing specific recruitment rules, such as the need to have a pre-determined share of women among the shortlisted candidates for a job opening.

The debate raised the care gap as another reason for persisting inequalities. Care responsibilities are still borne mainly by women, with negative effects on their economic potential and independence. Participants hoped that the EU Work-life Balance Directive that includes a period of designated paid parental leave for both parents would lead to a more even division of parental leave. They stressed, moreover, that social security systems had to provide for adequately paid parental leave.

Elizabeth Gosme, director of Coface Families Europe, said that gender equality in the labour market and the economy goes hand in hand with gender equality in the family. We advocate for work-life support for both men and women based on a mix of access to resources, services and time to care, so that people do not have to choose between work and family. The reconciliation of work and family life would increase women's employment as well as general wellbeing and fertility and reduce family and child poverty. Investments in family businesses, SMEs and early child education and care are important aspects of fostering gender equality in the labour market.

In the course of the debate, participants also addressed the gender pay gap. The commitment by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for binding pay transparency measures was welcomed.

In this context, Zoe Lanara-Tzotze from the Greek General Confederation of Labour (GSEE), called for a directive that included, amongst other things, a right to access information on pay levels for all workers, annual reporting obligations for companies with more than 10 staff based on the entire pay structure and a ban on secrecy clauses in contracts. Lifting the veil of secrecy would empower women, make them conscious of their rights and lead to pay equality.

In addition to pay transparency, Lanara-Tzotze touched on austerity policies and their impact on gender equality. She said: We have had a range of policies undermining or restricting collective bargaining. If we want gender equality in the labour market, collective bargaining is essential. Several participants supported her view.

Opinions diverged somewhat on how to address persisting gender gaps. Soft and hard measures, nudging and legislation (e.g. gender quota), were up for debate. Nevertheless, speakers and participants agreed that gender equality needs to be reflected in all policy areas and future measures and that the progress on gender equality requires joint efforts by politicians, companies, unions, individuals and families. Actions have to follow on commitments, also with a view to the increasing risk of new gender gaps.

The EESC has many times called on the policy-makers of Europe for effective measures to ensure equal opportunities for women and men in the labour market, notably measures to close the gender pay gap, as well as to tackle the concentration of women and men in different sectors and occupations and in different grades, levels of responsibility or positions. The Committee will continue to advocate on the issue of gender equality and aims to lead by example through mainstreaming gender equality in its own policies and practices.