Stakeholders have urged the EU to continue with efforts on achieving gender equality in the workplace and pay special attention to women, who have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic and have seen the existing gender inequalities exacerbated by the ongoing crisis.
Between lost earnings, uneven distribution of the extra burden of childcare, the increase of violence against women and girls, “women are at a breaking point,” Joanna Maycock, secretary-general at the European Women’s Lobby told a recent EURACTIV event.
Referring to the previous economic crisis and the tightening of fiscal belts that ensued across Europe, she said “we’ve seen the impact a decade of austerity measures had and how that impacted our public services in which the majority of workers are women, and the services upon women depend. So we can’t let this happen again.”
“Looking forward, we absolutely need to make sure that the recovery strategy coming out of COVID puts women and girls at its heart and make sure that women and girls do not pay the price of the long term socio-economic consequences,” Maycock added.
Progress on gender diversity in workplaces has been glacial. Gender equality in the domain of work has only improved by two points out of 100 across the EU in the past 14 years, with the bloc scoring an average of 72 in 2019.
However, there is also good news. Between 2005 and 2017, all EU countries made progress except Romania, where the score dropped marginally.
Improving gender equality alone by 2050 could lead to an increase in the EU’s GDP per capita of between 6.1% and 9.6%, which would amount to between €1.95 and €3.15 trillion, the European Institute of Gender Equality (EIGE) has estimated.
The Commission began to “give a new impetus” to gender equality through its five-year strategy presented last year, which will run until 2025 and aim to close the gender gap in employment as well as other areas of life.
“While the gender gap in education is being closed, gender gaps in employment, pay, care, power and pensions persist,” the strategy reads.
The European executive has adopted a dual approach to achieving gender equality, on the one hand promoting gender mainstreaming, — that is “systematically including a gender perspective in all stages of policy design” — as well as designing targeted measures.
The crucial role of putting the concept mainstreaming into action was emphasised by Katarina Ivankovic Kneževic, director for social affairs at the Commission’s employment directorate.
She underlined that now it is important that the Commission does “not just preach gender mainstreaming, but that we really implement it in the policies”.
“If we continue with the disability and gender mainstreaming, we might get closer to parity,” she added.
As part of concrete measures, the Commission plans to support women to find jobs in sectors with skills shortages, in particular, in technology and AI.
The Commission also promised to adopt new legislation with preventive and reactive measures against harassment in its own workplace and will strive to reach a 50-50 gender balance at all levels of its management by the end of 2024.
Moreover, the Commission said it will renew the push to make headway on the 2012 ‘Women on Boards’ proposal to promote gender balance on corporate boards, meant to set a target of having at least 40% of women as non-executive directors for listed companies in the EU.
However, the proposal has failed to garner the support of a qualified majority of member states and has been stuck in the Council since 2012.
A lot of misgivings about quotas are based on the misunderstanding of the concept, the head of gender equality at the Commission’s justice department, Karen Vandekerckhove, pointed out.
“Quotas are not about getting incompetent people in a post,” Vandekerckhove explained, as the preference to female candidates can be given only when the fact that the job applicants are of equal merit is first established.
Across the EU, women make up around a quarter of non-executive directors (26.4%) but the rate of increase has slowed since 2015, according to a 2019 study by the European Commission.
Women in top positions are even rarer, accounting for only 7.5% of board chairs and 7.7% of chief executives.
Vandekerckhove described such figures as “just not credible in a society.”
In countries that have introduced binding quotas, such as France, Germany, Italy, and Belgium, the measures have led to a rapid increase of women on company boards.
France was the only member state with more than 40% of women on boards, followed by Italy (36%), Sweden and Finland, according to the study.
At the beginning of March, the Commission presented its delayed pay transparency directive that will introduce binding pay transparency measures and strengthen enforcement mechanisms.
“The proposal is a very good first step,” MEP Stelios Kympouropoulos of the European Parliament’s employment committee said, adding, however, that “we can do better.”
“This is [about] transparency but it also improves access to justice for victims of pay discrimination,” the lawmaker added.
Vandekerckhove said that the Commission has demonstrated that an increase in transparency does not have to be accompanied by huge costs and can be privacy-friendly, while pointing out that the underlying reasons for concerns appear to be corporate culture.
“I think there is this general kind of, I would call it unease with the fact that there would be more transparency about pay,” she said.
The importance of the private sector’s buy-in was also emphasised by Katja Roth Pellanda, general counsel at the Zurich insurance group.
“Full gender equality can only be achieved by public-private cooperation,” highlighted Pellanda, whose company has already introduced a mentor network for women, a zero-tolerance policy towards harassment at the workplace, and an annual audit of equal pay for equal work.
“So everyone needs to step up and one alone can not achieve enough,” she added.