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Gender equality: No time to rest

Inequality / COMMENTARY
Laura Rayner , Elizabeth Kuiper , Danielle Brady , Victoria Pedjasaar

Date: 08/03/2023
"I will not rest until we have built an equitable Union," stated Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during her 2020 State of the Union address, so what has transpired since then, and how is the EU tackling gender inequalities?

Under the gender equality strategy, the Commission set out several initiatives to achieve a gender-equal Europe where gender-based violence, sex discrimination, and structural inequality between men and women would cease to exist. However, almost three and a half years into this Commission, where do we stand?

While there have been some positive legislative initiatives, including the Pay Transparency Directive, and the Directive on Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, Europe is still a long way from being gender-equal. Persistent gender differences in wages, pensions, and the labour market, as well as continuing gender-based violence, means that gender equality remains an ambition rather than a reality.

Gender equality in an era of permacrisis

When the Commission published its gender equality strategy on 5 March 2020, the world was a different place. The pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis had not yet entered the political and societal landscape. These events – the latest in a long list in this era of permacrisis – have had significant gendered implications. For example, the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis have, in many cases, exacerbated gender inequalities, for instance, in care responsibilities, labour market participation, and pay inequality, and have resulted in increased reports of domestic violence.

Gender-equal Europe: where do we stand?

Violence against women

A study by the European Institute for Gender Equality shows that intimate partner violence has increased enormously since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the EU, one-third of women over the age of 15 have been victims of physical and/or sexual violence, and more than half have been sexually harassed. Furthermore, violence remains under-reported; around one-third of women who are physically or sexually abused by their partner contact the authorities. Data that is missing or inconsistent makes it more challenging for governments to design appropriate measures to end this violence.

On International Women’s Day in 2022, the Commission adopted a proposal for a directive on combating violence against women and domestic violence. Among other recommendations, the proposal seeks to have all member states classify any non-consensual sex as rape under criminal law and criminalise female genital mutilation and cyberstalking. The directive puts pressure on EU countries to combat violence against women, but is it enough? The Istanbul Convention was not ratified by six EU countries (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, and Slovakia), which refused to translate its provisions into law. Furthermore, Poland has threatened to withdraw from the Convention. This lack of political commitment is deeply concerning. Goals at the EU level must be met with action at the national level. The recent Council decision to move forward with EU ratification without unanimity is most welcome following six years of gridlock. However, EU ratification only covers those matters falling within exclusive EU competence. Therefore, member state ratification is essential to ensure all women across the EU are afforded the same rights and protection against gender-based violence.

Matching EU ambitions with member state action

To tackle inequalities across the EU27, national-level commitment is required, particularly in member states with the largest inequalities gaps. However, a mismatch between the ambitions of initiatives and their timely implementation in member states is apparent, for example, with the work-life balance directive. This directive aims to better support a work-life balance for parents and carers, encourage a more equal sharing of parental leave between men and women, and address women’s underrepresentation in the labour market. It was formally adopted in 2019 and gave EU member states three years to fully comply with the directive. Nevertheless, in September 2022, the Commission adopted a package of infringement decisions due to the failure of nineteen member states to transpose the directive into national law. This failure is shocking not least in the context of the intervening years and their significant impact on gender inequalities.

Along with fully implementing the Work-Life Balance Directive, member states must work towards the timely implementation of further initiatives, such as the Pay Transparency Directive. The gender pay gap currently stands at 13%, having decreased a mere 2.8 percentage points in the period between 2010 and 2020. Such a gap means that women work ‘for free’ from 15 November until the end of the year. The directive, which needs formal agreement from the European Parliament and the Council, focuses on measures to ensure pay transparency and better access to justice for victims of pay discrimination. Once the directive comes into force, member states must prioritise its transposition into national law to avoid similar delays and issues seen with the work-life balance directive. To put it bluntly, if member states fail to comply with these initiatives, progress on tackling inequalities will falter and the benefits of EU action will be undermined.

Addressing persisting inequalities

While the pay transparency directive should work to expose and reduce the gender pay gap, its impact will be minimal in low-paid sectors dominated by women. Supporting action is needed to ensure a decent living wage to help eradicate in-work poverty and contribute to narrowing the overall gender gap in earnings. To truly tackle economic gender inequalities further, measures are needed to mitigate the factors that lead to gender gaps in pay, employment, and working hours. The persisting inequalities that exacerbate these gaps can be attributed to many factors, including low pay in sectors dominated by women, the low proportion of women in the highest paid roles, and patriarchal societal and structural norms surrounding care responsibilities, and invisible and unpaid work.

Gender stereotypes, complemented by the pay gap, often result in women taking on the role of informal caregivers either because the family cannot afford to lose the higher [male] income or because it is still considered ‘women’s work’. The subsequent impact on women’s ability to participate in the labour market can then result in women leaving employment or reducing work hours, with negative impact on their earnings and pensions. With more women than men living on a minimum pension, it is vital that any pension reforms are analysed from a gender perspective to avoid a further widening of the gender pension gap. The publication of the European Care Strategy in 2022 was an important step forward in trying to tackle gender inequality in formal and informal care work in the EU. There was much to be welcomed in it, especially in terms of the provision of early childhood education and care and its aim to improve the working conditions and work-life balance of carers, both of which have the potential to improve women's positions.

However, we are starting at an exceptionally low bar. Even before the pandemic, 7.7 million women across the EU were prevented from entering the economic labour market due to care responsibilities, COVID-19, with its negative impact on gender employment, the division of care responsibilities and mental health, will not have improved these unacceptable numbers. In the long term, with Europe facing demographic challenges, it is not inconceivable that these dreadful statistics will worsen further as more individuals – most likely women – exit the labour market or reduce working hours to perform unpaid care work.

Life-long inequalities

These labour market statistics also have knock-on implications for the gender pension gap. Taking leave from employment for care responsibilities has a significant impact on pension outcomes, perpetuating an EU gender pension gap of 29.5%. In most countries, the gender pension gap is significantly bigger than the gender wage gap. In 2022, the Commission launched a study to monitor care credits in occupational pension schemes to avoid a gap in public pension contributions during workforce absence. Although pension credits may be an effective way to close the gender pension gap between men and women, the next European Commission will have to keep working on the mandate to make sure progress is made.

No time to rest

The current Commission has demonstrated its commitment to gender equality through its gender equality strategy and associated initiatives. However, commitment can only deliver so much. Ursula Von der Leyen's promise not to rest when it comes to equality needs to be replicated by member states. The abovementioned initiatives must be promptly translated into law across all member states. 

Measures such as the Directive on Combating Violence against Women, the Care Strategy, Pay Transparency and Work-Life Balance Directive should have positive implications for gender equality. However, to truly address gender inequalities, they must be accompanied by gender mainstreaming and gender impact assessments across all policy areas at the EU and national level. In parallel, greater effort should be dedicated to quantifying the economic benefits of achieving gender equality, in particular, the economic contribution that investment in the care economy offers.

As we approach 2024 and the end of the current Commission's tenure, gender inequalities remain prevalent across the EU. While the Commission has delivered on many initiatives set out in the gender equality strategy, now is not the time to rest. To realise the ambitions of a gender-equal Europe, it is important to recognise the manifest reasons for gender inequalities, from persistently patriarchal attitudes to the role of women in many countries to historically low-paid work being consistently done by women, a lack of recognition of the economic value of unpaid care work, and a fundamental unwillingness by some member states to tackle these issues. Continued political commitment across the EU will be required, extending well beyond the mandate of this Commission.

Elizabeth Kuiper is an Associate Director and Head of the Social Europe and Well-Being programme at the European Policy Centre.

Danielle Brady is a Policy Analyst in the Social Europe and Well-Being programme.

Laura Rayner is a Policy Analyst in the Social Europe and Well-Being programme.

Victoria Pedjasaar is a Programme Assistant in the Social Europe and Well-Being programme.

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