In the European Pact for Gender Equality, the Council of the European Union emphasizes the importance of taking into account “the crucial role of men and boys on the promotion of gender equality”. Yet only 8,2 percent of the members in the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee are men.
By: Åsa Secher
Strasbourg 8th of March 2011. The European Parliament is covered in posters declaring the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. During press conferences, debates and workshops the importance of gender equality is emphasized. However, the statistics presented in the European Commissions yearly report on gender equality are very clear: the progress is too slow. Women in the European Union earn on average 17,5 percent less than men and only three percent of CEO’s of the largest companies in the EU are women. The explanations are likely to be numerous and complex, but when turning towards the efforts being made to improve the situation, there is a clear pattern: a distinct lack of men engaged in gender equality work. Only five out of 61 members of the European Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee (FEMM) are men and during the debate on equality between men and women in plenary the 8th of March only two out of 15 speakers were men.
Eva-Britt Svensson, chair of the FEMM Committee, thinks the composition of the committee reflects on the composition of the entire European Parliament.
“We have a very conservative majority in Parliament, where gender equality issues have very low status, therefore men are not interested in participating in the work, that’s what I believe is the main reason”.
For Eva-Britt Svensson, it is important that the FEMM Committee has high status in Parliament.
“To have an impact on these issues you need status. It doesn’t matter if the committee voted for great things if we lose in plenary. So it’s really important that you work in a way that brings status, so that the men in the plenary vote in favor of women’s right to their sexuality, women’s right to decide for themselves, and so forth”.
According to Eva-Britt Svensson, the reason why so few men seem to be interested in gender equality work in the first place can be traced back in history.
“The fight for gender equality was initiated by women, often having to do it by themselves, and thus turning gender equality into a women’s issue. But gladly that perspective is changing now, however perhaps more slowly on EU-level. Take yesterday as an example [8th of March], when all women entering plenary were given red roses, which clearly attests to an old-fashioned attitude towards women”.
To argue with money
To raise interest in gender equality issues among men, Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission, wants to focus on economics and argue that we all need to pay attention to gender equality to maximize our profits.
“All the studies we have show that corporations with an equilibrated structure for top decision-making, compared to those with an all male structure, are making a much higher return on investment, so it is in the interest of the companies to take women in. We should leave the feminist discussion about this and really present the value in money”.
The studies Viviane Reding is referring to are made by Goldman Sachs and McKinsey and conclude that a decreased gender gap could increase the GDP of the Euro-zone by nine percent. They also show that companies with women on their boards had a 56 percent higher operating profit than those with only men.
When it comes to companies and the challenge of convincing male directors, Eva-Britt Svensson agrees with Viviane Reding that the economic arguments are useful. However, she feels that in order to really convince both men and women to fight for gender equality, company directors or not, we should not have to rely on arguments based on economic profits.
“We must not belittle the importance of gender equality, it has to be important even if it is not profitable for companies. After all the core is to have a society with equal opportunities and equal rights. How much of a feminist are you if you if you compromise on the core values?”
The power of experience
Marc Tarabella is a Belgian Member of the European Parliament and one of five male members of the FEMM Committee.
“I regret that there are so few men on the committee, but I think it might have to do with the fact that a lot of women unfortunately have experienced being treated differently because they are women. And if you can relate, it’s easier to engage”.
Marc Tarabella has been a member of the committee since 2009 when he reentered the European Parliament. When he told his colleagues he wanted to join they laughed at him, but he didn’t care.
Between 2007 and 2009 he was Minister for training, youth and life-long learning in Belgium, and it was during that period he decided he wanted to engage actively in gender equality work.
“While working in Belgium I received some testimonies. There was for example one young woman who came up to me once and told me how she’d wanted to become a school bus driver, but because she was the only woman among 40 men, the [male] teacher had told her to cut her hair, that bus driver was no job for a woman and so on, so she quit. And that’s just terrible, and that kind of behavior takes place everyday, and we must fight it.”
However convinced he himself might be, Marc Tarabella don’t know how to convince other men to do what he did, but he does feel that the mentality towards gender equality is changing.
“We need to change the mentality both inside the EU and outside, and that takes time. But with younger members coming in, I feel we are moving in the right direction”.
The importance of leadership
Eva-Britt Svensson has been chair of the FEMM Committee for one and a half years and she is utterly convinced that her presidency will increase the number of men on the committee the upcoming term.
“My predecessor on the committee thought that abortion should be illegal even if the life of the pregnant woman was in danger. With that kind of presidency the committee was not being taken seriously. Since I became chair we have raised the bar and I’m completely convinced that a more serious committee also will attract more men”.
However hopeful she feels when it comes to her own committee, she also feels that a gender balanced composition is equally important on other committees where important decisions are being made.
“A lot of the most important decisions are not being made on the FEMM Committee, but rather in male-dominated committees such as the foreign affairs committee. So on those committees it’s important that we increase the number of women represented, and when I became chair I appointed one person on every committee to be responsible for gender mainstreaming. Which is very easy to do, the hard part is to make it affective. So we are in constant contact with these representatives and support them in whatever way we can. And it might not seem that important, but it’s an embryo to making gender equality matter in every committee” .
And even if supporting gender-mainstreaming representatives in other committees won’t increase the number of men on the FEMM Committee, it is another way of trying to get men interested in gender equality.