“In all its activities, the Union shall aim to eliminate inequalities, and to promote equality, between men and women.” [ Article 8 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU states] Gender equality is a fundamental right also guaranteed by Article 23 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. After 100 years since the first International Women’s Day gender equality has not been achieved. The European Parliament (EP) is committed to strengthening women’s rights.
Celebrating 100 years anniversary
The special ceremony to commemorate 100 years of campaigning for women’s rights was held on March 8 during the EP’s plenary session in Strasbourg. One hundred years ago women were fighting for a right to vote, they were striking for peace and equality. Vice-president of the European Commission Catherine Ashton said: „This important occasion has marked the economic, social, political and cultural achievements of women around the world. We take this opportunity to reiterate jointly our commitment to promote women’s rights and gender equality“.
The EU has made significant progress over the last decades in achieving equality between women and men: equal treatment legislation, gender mainstreaming and specific measures for the advancement of women. Although inequalities between men and women still exist. EP President Jerzy Buzek pointed out: “In 100 years we have managed to change Europe, but not enough”.
Inequality still exists
Women continue to be significantly underrepresented in leadership and decision- making positions in the corporate sector. Corporate Europe is still a man’s world: women account for an average of just 3% of the presidents of the largest quoted and just one in 10 board members at Europe’s biggest companies.
The central bank of each country across Europe is led by a male governor and more than four out of every five members of key decision-making bodies are men.
Politics also continues to be dominated by men. Women make up around 53% of Europe’s population but they occupy only 35% of the seats in the EP.
Only 52 of the 202 head unit posts at middle – management level in the EP are occupied by women. The top two levels of the civil service in each of the EU Member States comprised 68% men and 32% women. Women account for nearly one in three (31%) judges of supreme courts at national level.
The pay gap between women and men remains persistently wide: on average and across the whole economy, women in the EU earn 17.6% less per hour than men. Although there are successes to applaud and positive trends are emerging, it seems that old stereotypes die hard and many of the largest employers in the EU still do not seem to be open for female talent to flourish in particular in top positions.
Different suggestions – one aim
Achieving gender equality is also vital for the EU’s growth, employment and social cohesion objectives. The Europe 2020 Strategy is the EU’s key document for that. Studies show that businesses with more women at the top outperform “men only” companies. Their operating income is higher and they are better at attracting talent and understanding customers.
The commissioner Viviane Reading asserted: “Gender is a business issue, not purely a “women’s” issue. Women mean business!” According to her, making the most of Europe’s female talent in the workforce is not just good for business – it also benefits the economy and society as a whole.
V. Reading met chief executives and chairs of boards of publicly listed companies in Brussels on the 1st March to discuss the under-representation of women on corporate boards. They were asked for a voluntary commitment to increase women’s participation on corporate boards to 30% by 2015 and to 40% by 2020.
“In one year’s time, on 8 March 2012, I will take stock and monitor the progress achieved. If self-regulation fails, I am prepared to take action at EU level to help achieve a breakthrough and get more women into top jobs”- said V. Reading.
Mariya Nedelcheva (PPE) in her report on equality between women and men in the EU – 2010, also takes stock of the equality between sexes and addresses challenges still to be tackled.
The draft resolution calls on Member States to take effective measures, “such as quotas, to ensure greater representation for women in major listed companies and on the management boards of companies in general”, citing Norway as a positive example, followed by Spain and France.
Some suggestions were rejected, but the resolution in whole was accepted. “I am delighted of the outcome of the voting, the large majority were in favour”, – said Silvana Koch – Mehrin, Vice – President of the EP.
Quotas system still very controversial
The various approaches promoted by governments, the social partners and companies to increase the percentage of women in decision – making positions and the results they have achieved, reflect Europe’s diverse cultures and the lack of a “one-size-fits-all” solution.
The most effective, albeit controversial, strategy to be achieve gender – balanced boards seems to be quota legislation, as Norway’s experience shows. Since Norway passed a quota law in 2006, the number of women on the boards of large companies has risen sharply.
Although during the debates there were some strongly demurring opinions about the gender quotas. Nicole Sinclaire maintained that proposal for quota system has lost touch with the reality: “I am against all kind of discrimination, even positive and in favour of women”.
ECR Women’s Spokesman Marina Yannakoudakis MEP has welcomed EU Commissioner Reding’s self- regulatory initiative. However, she was very categorical about the gender quotas: “Let’s not patronise women. Let’s make sure that women are getting the top job because they are excellent at what they do, not because they fulfil a quota.”
One of Lithuania’s strategic directions is to encourage gender equality, especially after opening the European Institute of Gender Equality (EIGE) in the capital of Lithuania. Lithuania has the first lady president Dalia Grybauskaitė, The Lithuanian parliament (Seimas) now is presented over by a lady speaker Irena Degutienė, Ministries of National Defence and Finances are also headed by women Rasa Juknevičienė and Ingrida Šimonytė.
Lithuanian MEP Laima Liucija Andrikienė said: “Situation in Lithuania is not bad, but inequality, all those stereotypes and tunnel vision is still felt strongly”. In 2004, Seimas considered gender quotas, but it was rejected as contradictory to Lithuanian Constitution.
After the success of quotas in Norway and Spain and after this law was adopted in Iceland and France Lithuanians are still very sceptical. Due to the Eurobarometer only 12% of Lithuanians think that it would be effective.
“I don‘t think that quotas are needed. Constitution states that everybody is equal. One cannot be more equal than others. Actually, Reading’s voluntary settlement is more attractive for me”, – explained L. Andrikienė. “Even though, I do not think this will work in Lithuania, probably there will be changes only after regulation, when they will be forced to do that”, – she added.
Adviser for Public Relations in Office of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsman Valdas Dambrava also has negative opinion: “Then what about quotas for age – groups, national minorities, different religions and others? Gender cannot be excluded and more emphasised from all other discriminations.”
Virginija Langbakk, Director at EIGE explained that “Inequality is still obvious in many areas. Situation has to be changed.”
EIGE has produced a list of 100 Inequalities to illustrate that, although there is much to celebrate, there is still a long way from achieving gender equality.
“I am convinced that equality will become the norm and that International Women’s Day will cease to be an occasion for highlighting a problem and become instead a day of celebration”, – EP Vice – President S. Koch – Mehrin concluded.