Gender equality – not so equal in the European parliament

The number of women elected as European members of Parliament in the elections of June 4th, 2009 has risen from 30 percent to 35 percent. A good result but not yet good enough. Malta failed to elect one single woman, while Finland is keeping the lead of having the most female representation in the European parliament. Finding the road towards gender equality is through patterns of national culture. At least that is where they put the blame.

The European Union has 27 membership countries. There are 732 members of the European parliament (MEP). About 35 percent of those are women. Malta is the only membership country who doesn´t have any female representation. Finland, on the other hand, has a female representation of  62 percent. In their national parliament they are also doing far better off in gender equality, than any other EU membership country. About 40 percent of the members of the Finnish parliament are women, and they have a female president. What is their secret? Sari Essayah, a Finnish MEP of the European People´s Party, believe that the media coverage has a lot to do with it.

–          In Finland the media is watching over the political parties carefully and they really care about gender equality. If a party has a very unequal amount of men and women, then it will definitely be on the news. This makes the parties strive for gender equality because, of course, they don´t want bad publicity, says Sari Essayah.

The Hawkeye of media may be one of the reasons to why Finnish women are almost about as equal as men in the political scene. But Finland also have systems implicated in their parliament, to secure the strive for gender equality. In the committees there is a quota that says that at least 40 percent has to be of the opposite sex. Satu Hassi, a Finnish MEP from the Group of the Greens, says that quotas are necessary because people tend to engage in different issues, partly depending on gender.

–          There is a tendency, proven by studies and opinion pulls, that all the professions that women tend to emphasize is more focused on soft values, such as health care and environmental issues. These different values of men and women can be seen in the parliament. For example there are more women in the environmental committee. So the quotas is a good thing because it forces both men and women to activate in all areas, says Satu Hassi.

Finland is famous for its sauna culture and this steams up the Finnish parliament as well. Sari Essayah tells us about how women experience the male sauna as a threat to gender equality.

–          The male politicians sauna together very often and a lot of women in the parliament used to feel like a lot of the important decisions were made in there. But as a strike back, women of the parliament formed a network against the sauna culture. They basically did the same thing but in another room, says Sari Essayah.

In Malta the warm climate doesn´t demand a culture for saunas. Nor is there a need for a room in the parliament, into which male members can go to exclude women from the decision making. The parliament of Malta houses 69 members. Only six of them are women. That is nine percent. Edward Scicluna, from Malta, is a member of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European parliament. He thinks that the national culture of family values is holding the women back.

–          Something is blocking our system and it is not the educationally quality or lack of opportunities. It comes from employers and maybe also the employees. It has to do with culture. The husbands’ don´t want their women to work. In Malta women are not expected to work after they had kids, but to raise them until they are grown up, says Edward Scicluna.

In Malta it is difficult for women because men are looking at women as a minority at work and many men would feel uncomfortable with having a female manager ordering them around. This will reflect on politics. But why do so few women offer themselves for politics? In the last election for members of the European parliament there were five women, out of 12 candidates, going for the job. But they were not voted for. Edward Scicluna sees two reasons to this problem.

–          First of all, less women offer themselves to politics, therefore they have a reduced chance of representation. But more importantly, women do not trust women. When a woman wants to have a career they ask themselves “why is she so ambitious to get away from her husband and kids?” because it goes against their culture, says Edward Scicluna.

In order to break the glass ceiling, Edward Scicluna thinks that quotas would be a good solution. But successful women in Malta are not in favor of quotas, just as most women in Finland. One of the arguments against quotas is that it is to help women who are weak and poor, but the opposition arguments that quotas will not force companies to hire unqualified people only due to gender.

Eva-Britt Svensson is chair of the committee of Women´s Rights and Gender Equality. She thinks that the balance of men and women in the European parliament isn´t good.

–          The atmosphere here is very manly. But it is hard to make a change because it is up to each country to work on how to let more women in to politics. It´s a lot about attitudes due to different cultures. I would say that here in the European parliament gender equality is not at all prioritized, says Eva-Britt Svensson.

In the European parliament nothing concrete is being done to enforce its membership countries to increase their female representation. Discussions are being held, but moving slowly. On March 8th, the 100th anniversary of International Women´s Day, gender equality was high on the agenda. José Manuel Barosso, the President of the European Commission, said that the main focus of this year should be gender equality. He also said that he was pleased with the current situation on women´s progress in the fields of work and politics. He is happy that nine out of 27 commissioners are women, although this is one less than last period. To this, Eva-Britt Svensson shakes her head in despair. Many female MEPs, such as Satu Hassi and Sari Essayah have a dream that young women in Europe will soon stop to associate the European parliament with male politicians. Edward Scicluna feels shame as he walks into plenary sessions and debates.

–          Of course I am embarrassed of the fact that we have no women representing us in the EU parliament. We have a joke between us MEPs form Malta, saying that when we go in to the plenary we laugh and say “let´s put on our turbans” because we feel like we come from Iran or some place where they really suppress women, says Edward Scicluna.

Louise Wernvik

List of sources:




–          Eva-Britt Svensson, chair of EU´s committee on Female Rights and Gender Equality

0046 706331546

–          Britta Thomsen, Danish MEP and member of Committee of Female Rights and Gender Equality

0045 20716740

–          Satu Hassi, Finnish MEP

0032 22845437

–          Sari Essayah, Finnish MEP

0032 22845178

–          Edward Scicluna, Malta MEP

0032 22845543


–          Roger Falk, assistant of Eva-Britt Svensson

0032 22847105

–          Meria Eräpulku, assistant of Sari Essayah

0032 22847178

–          Aino Valtanen, assistant for Sirpa Pietikäinen

0032 22845264

–          Desislava Demitrova, assistant for Louis Grech

0032 22845235

–          Benjamin Fox, assistant of Edward Scicluna

0032 22845543

Organisations and experts:

–          Åsa Dahlvik, Information on Human Rights for the United Nations

–          Petteri Nyman, information, Finnish parliament

–          Lina Olsson, Feministiskt initiativ

–          Drude Dahlerup, statsvetare


–          “Special EB 100th anniversary of Women´s Day: Bridging the gender gap in the EU EB75.1-March 2011”, opinion pull made by European Parliament and “tns opinion”.

–          “Sexism thrives in the EU bubble”, anonymous journalist, New Europe, February 27th, 2011






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