New incentives aim to foster a fairer division of childcare and other caring duties between men and women, which should help reduce the persistent gender employment gap
Measures proposed by the European Commission to help families achieve a better work-life balance and tackle the unequal distribution of care responsibilities between men and women represent a step in the right direction, said the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) at its plenary session in December.
On top of this, they should enable more women to participate in the labour market and to unlock their full skills potential, the EESC said in the opinion on "Work-life balance of working parents and caregivers", adopted at the plenary.
The EESC also noted that the measures presented in the Commission's proposal for a Directive on work-life balance for parents and carers require further analysis and improvements so as to take into account the actual situation in each Member State as well as the needs of businesses, and of small and medium-sized enterprises in particular.
The Commission proposal, which is the first legislative measure under the European Pillar for Social Rights, includes new rights to paternity leave of at least 10 working days around the time of birth of the child, carers' leave for workers caring for ill or dependent relatives of five days per year and a right to request flexible working arrangements.
Regarding parental leave, it proposes a four-month period of non-transferable leave and an increase in the age of the child (from eight to 12 years old) up to which parents can take leave.
The Commission proposes that workers taking these leaves should receive an adequate allowance at least equivalent to the level of sick pay. Recognising that sick pay entitlements vary considerably throughout Europe, the EESC recommends that compensation should be adequate, give parents more choice and encourage more men to take family leaves, while allowing for national practices.
The Commission hopes these measures will encourage fathers to be more involved in care responsibilities, thereby lightening the burden which traditionally falls to women. This, in turn, should reduce the persistent gender pay gap of 16.3% and women's continued underrepresentation in the labour market, with the overall number of women in employment trailing more than 12 percentage points behind that of men.
Studies also show that the gender pension gap is as high as 40%, which makes women more likely to experience poverty in old age.
"Work-life balance policies are tools that will enable women and men to make their choices starting from a level playing field," said Erika Koller, the rapporteur for the opinion. "The Commission's proposal is not a silver bullet that will solve everything, but it is certainly a step in the right direction."
Increasing women's participation in the labour market would also bring economic benefits, Ms Koller said, adding that recent Eurofound estimates put the economic loss caused by the gender employment gap at EUR 370 billion per year.
However, while welcoming the proposed introduction of non-transferable paternity leave, the EESC said that a longer period, instead of 10 working days, could be more conducive to achieving the proposal's goal of substantially increasing fathers' involvement.
"The compensation for leave should be at the discretion of Member States, and it should be adequate and create motivation," stressed the co-rapporteur for the opinion, Vladimírá Drbalová.
The EESC supports the need for individual entitlements to leave for women and men but is also aware that increasing their scope could initially cause businesses – particularly SMEs – to encounter organisational difficulties and incur additional costs. It therefore suggests that problems arising from the application of these provisions should be dealt with in accordance with national laws and collective agreements.
The Commission's impact assessment showed that the costs of the proposed measures would rise in the short to medium term, while in the long term, costs for business would be limited. In its opinion, the EESC also said that it was "confident that the long-term benefits will outweigh the short-term increased costs and that measures to support medium and small-sized enterprises should be further explored".
Ms Drbalová maintained that the employment rate for women aged between 24 and 34 was not satisfactory and that pressure should be put on Member States to invest more in childcare services and facilities, which would allow both parents to stay in employment. She added that employers were facing huge labour market shortages and that they urgently needed women with appropriate skills in the labour market.
However, aside from the lack of high-quality, affordable and available care services ranging from childcare to community-based care services for older family members and people with disabilities, stereotypical views of women as primary carers and men as family breadwinners also contribute to the unfair division of care responsibilities in families. In some Member States, more than 25% of women are economically inactive because they look after their children or older family members.
The EESC stressed that the Commission and the Member States had a fundamental role to play in tackling stereotypes, including through education and public awareness-raising campaigns. It also regretted that the Commission's proposal does not sufficiently consider tax deductions to help working parents continue in employment.