All posts by lwernvik

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






Sexual assault – an unprotected environment in the European parliament

Video reported by Louise Wernvik. Edited by Søren Tang, Biwa Kwan & Louise Wernvik.

Story by Louise Wernvik

Gender equality ranks highly on the agenda nowadays. This interest is partly because of the 100th anniversary of International Women´s Day, and partly because female discrimination is still occurring in many areas of society. Throughout Europe, women are disadvantaged in work terms of wage levels, pensions and they are also victims of objectification by their male superiors. In the charter of the European Union, it is specified that they seek to achieve gender equality within its member countries. However, the European parliament is having difficulties putting their own agenda into practice.

Sexual discrimination is common in many workplaces therefore it is no surprise that there is an ongoing power discrepancy within one of Europe’s most powerful organizations. What differs from many other workplaces is the fact that the European parliament lacks a system to protect its employers from sex-oriented discrimination. In an article published by New Europe magazine (February 27th, 2011), an anonymous journalist tells the story about politicians in the European Union making sexist remarks and putting their hands on the thighs of their female co-workers. The journalist refers to this as near-daily occurrences in EU-Brussels. The European Parliament is turning a blind eye concerning this issue as it is not being discussed within the European Parliament.

Eva-Britt Svensson is the chair of EU’s committee on Women´s Rights and Gender Equality. Throughout her seven years in the parliament, she has met several victims of the elected sexual offenders. She says the biggest issue is male member of the European parliament (MEP) sexually harassing their female assistants.

“I have female assistants coming to my office and telling me about male members of parliament sexually harassing them. It is a difficult situation because these girls have no one to turn to. In one of the cases, the girl had proof for being sexually harassed by her MEP, but it wasn´t enough and you can´t fire a man who is elected by the people. At the end of it all, she was the one who had to leave,” says Eva-Britt Svensson.

Since there is no institute of the European parliament dealing with this, there is also no documentation other than personal note- taking. Eva-Britt Svensson estimates that the hidden statistics are very high. Sexual harassment is, of course, a crime that should be reported to the police. But even if the MEP would be found guilty of charge, he or she wouldn´t be forced to leave their post at the European parliament. They are elected by the people and can´t be fired because of sexual assault. This doesn´t mean that MEPs are immune to laws, equally like any other citizen they are referred to court in case of committing a crime. The problem is that the European parliament doesn´t have zero toleration against sexual harassments.

In research of this article, five random MEP assistants were asked if they knew where to turn to in case of sexual harassment by their MEP. Not a single one of them knew what to do. They confirmed that there is no support system or contact for this kind of issue, but that they would very much like one. The Assistants association was recently formed, but in lack of time they have not yet come to discuss this issue. Meria Eräpulku, is an assistant for a Finnish MEP.

“There should be some kind of system to protect us. I´m sorry to say that I don´t know why there isn´t one yet. It is disappointing”, she says.

Eva-Britt Svensson is also disappointed and deeply concerned in this issue. She thinks that there will be a long time before this problem can be solved.

“I want to bring this issue of sexual assault up to discussion in the parliament. But it is not as easy as it sounds. There is a matter of attitudes. Gender equality is not at all prioritized here. In order to approach other MEPs on this subject I have to make my own opinions very clear to them and then I have to listen with an open mind and take all different opinions into further discussion. It takes a long time and some people would not even admit that this is an existing issue within the European parliament”, says Eva-Britt Svensson.

About 35 percent of the members of the European parliament are female. Eva-Britt Svensson describes the atmosphere in the European parliament as very male-dominated. Wherever you go within the Parliament, you will find men opening the door for their female colleagues. On the International Women´s Day, all women received flowers. Although this can be viewed as considerate behavior, Eva-Britt Svensson says that a lot of women find this offensive.

“By giving me flowers on the day to remind us all about women´s independence, is more like treating it as Mothers Day. This is not gender equality. This behavior is very old fashioned”, says Eva-Britt Svensson.

Edward Scicluna is a member of the parliament from Malta, which is the only EU membership country who doesn´t have any female representatives. He tells the story of how growing up in a culture where women are expected to work within the household affected his gender perception.

“My first trip abroad was for a summer job in London, where I had a female boss. I remember that I resented taking orders from her. But after some time I realized that I had to change. But from this experience I can understand some mens´ difficulties of viewing women as equal. It’s our environment, upbringing and culture that teach us what is normal. But as we enter into the international world, it is up to us to view it objectively in order to understand it”, says Edward Scicluna.

When there is no safety net to fall back on, what can be done? Sari Essayah, a Finnish member of the parliament, believes that the only help you can get is to reach out to the press.

“Publicity puts pressure. If the girl in question would have proof then he would be an easy target for the press. But in most cases you can´t actually prove that someone made a sexist remark in private. But I still believe in making the issue public. It is the best way to deal with this problem right now”, says Sari Essayah.

And as this issue is being put into print, the fight for gender equality is slowly progressing within the European parliament. Eva-Britt Svensson is reaching for attention from other MEPs, trying to bring the issue of sexual harassment at their working place up to discussion. Assistants are gradually forming their own army of support. As the European Union is working for female rights in its membership countries, the walls of the European parliament is still a territory marking toleration for undermined views of female subjects.

Louise Wernvik