EESC event on "Women in the labour market"

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Esteemed speakers and guests,

My turn to thank you very much for taking part in this event, to mark together the International Women's Day. This is a day when we have to restate our firm principles and accelerate our progress towards gender equality.

But first, allow me to start with mentioning another of our firm principles: Peace. Mentioned in the very first sentence of EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights and the very first sentence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I refer of course to the terrible situation in Ukraine, the armed invasion that shocked us all. A war impacts of course everybody, but it has consequences on women in particular. 

The fighting has forced many Ukrainians to flee their homes and this puts women and girls at heightened risk of violence.  And this happens in a country that has already known 8 years of conflict in eastern Ukraine and in which already 75 per cent of women in the country reported experiencing some form of violence since the age of 15 years old. In such a situation, I would like to acknowledge the work of civil society organisations in Ukraine and the EU, which help tremendously and amplify the voices of women and girls.  Last but not least on this, I would like to say that it is also essential to include women themselves in the decision-making processes and humanitarian response, to make sure that their rights are upheld.

To come back on the International Women's Day, I would start by saying that women's rights are human rights, and respecting them, is a must. Gender equality is recognised in the EU treaties and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights as one of the Union's fundamental values.

Yet, there is still a long way to go to achieve gender equality in the EU, and the labour market makes no exception. Employment rates remain systematically higher for men than women in the EU, resulting in a gender employment gap of almost 12 percentage points. Not even seven out of ten women are employed in the European Union, compared to almost eight out of ten men.

This wide gender employment gap is not only unacceptable from an ethical point of view. It also represents billions of economic loss for the EU and a lost talent that could have contributed to make the EU more innovative, competitive and prosperous. With the demographic challenge and the shrinking of the working age population, Europe cannot afford to overlook the labour market potential of half of its citizens.

The gender pay gap is also a persistent barrier to gender equality in the labour market and for economic growth. Women in the EU continue to earn 14% less per hour than their male counterparts, which translate in a wide gender pension gap. This is due to a combination of vertical and horizontal segregation, pay discrimination and the unequal share of unpaid work.

Combining work, private and family life is a great challenge, and women are disproportionally affected, as they generally bear the responsibility for caring for their loved ones. We saw it during the lockdowns that we had: women had to become teachers, mothers and employees at the same time.

The affordability and accessibility of care facilities are key to improve women's participation in the labour market. Balancing private and family life should never be a luxury for the few. A good mix of quality public and private care facilities is crucial to allow women to reconcile work and family life and re-enter the labour market after having a child.

Education, healthcare and welfare represent backbones of our society, but these sectors continue to be characterised by persistent gender segregation and lower salaries than in other sectors, like for example IT, where men are more present. These sectors should be better valued, and we need to encourage more men to work in these sectors.  This would also allow harnessing the untapped job potential of these sectors.

We need both men and women on board to dismantle persisting gender stereotypes leading to inequalities in the labour market. I am looking forward to the EESC contributing this year to a campaign on talking stereotypes that will be launched by the European Commission later this year. Tackling segregation and stereotypes should start from the very first years of education. Only few girls opt for studies in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) including ICT, and even less decide to pursue a career in this sector: only 2% of women's total share in the EU labour market.

This is not acceptable, nowadays, because these are the sectors that are nowadays growing, and in which one can have rewarding and highly paid careers. The absence of women in these fields, and especially in Artificial Intelligence in which there are only 16 % of women, brings about other problems: if women are absent from these sectors, this means our whole new world will be fashioned by men, with their possible bias. We need to make sure Artificial Intelligence and new technologies works for both women and men, and that starts with training of women from diverse backgrounds.

Female entrepreneurship is also an important tool to empower women in the labour market. The percentage of women entrepreneurs or self-employed in the EU has grown from 28 % in 2012 to around 34 % nowadays. The situation is improving, but female entrepreneurs still have higher mountains to climb in their working lives. They face a higher risk of in-work poverty and have more difficulties in obtaining financing. These barriers need to be removed. Female entrepreneurship must be supported by, for example, new forms of financing, provision of subsidies for launch of new activities, mentoring, business skills education, and in general, by the encouragement of a women-friendly culture.

The labour market must be a safe and inclusive environment for women to thrive and fulfil their career ambitions. It must lift women up, not tear them down. Yet, many women continue to face work-related harassment and under-reporting of sexual harassment is common place.

We need urgent measures to tackle any form of violence and sexual harassment in the workplace and I am very happy that the Commission is about to issue this afternoon a legislative proposal to prevent and combat gender-based violence against women and domestic violence. The EESC will of course deliver an opinion on the initiative. All Member States should ratify the ILO Convention 190 of 2019 on violence and harassment.

To conclude, the path towards gender equality might be steep but we need to walk it together. EU institutions, business organisations, social partners, authorities and equality bodies should come together to find effective solutions. Social partners, in particular, have a key role to play in tackling gender inequalities at the work place.

As the European Economic and Social Committee, it is our mission to lift these voices up and to make them heard at the EU level. Only together, we can make concrete progress towards a fairer and an equal society. When talking about our future, we certainly cannot leave out half of EU's population!

Thank you for your attention.


EESC event on "Women in the labour market"