Věra Jourová: Gender-balanced political participation can only improve trust in our institutions
Věra Jourová on making sure past progress is consolidated, fighting the gender pay gap and why encouraging women's political participation would benefit everyone.
Věra Jourová | Photo credit: Natalie Hill
In some circles, the EU has a reputation for being run by grey-haired career politicians, so it's no wonder Věra Jourová stands out. You wouldn't guess it from just looking at her, but Europe's justice, consumers and gender equality Commissioner is actually an ex-convict. Well, kind of.
Over a decade ago, she spent a month in prison in her native Czech Republic, after being accused of accepting a bribe to secure EU funds. The accusations, it turned out, were unfounded and the charges were dropped. However, the experience inspired her to pursue a degree in law and fuelled her passion for justice and defending the rule of law.
On 8 March, the world marks yet another International Women's Day - the earliest celebration dates back to 1909 - when we are reminded of the deep inequalities that remain between men and women.
Jourová, however, is keen to stress, "We have made a lot of progress since the early 1900s and these achievements should be celebrated. Women can vote, work, have their own bank account and now more than 60 per cent of university graduates in the EU are women."
On a personal note, she says, "the situation of women has changed since my youth, although that was not so long ago. In fact, the situation of women is still changing daily.
"When I was a child, the communists would celebrate International Women' Day, but there was some hypocrisy about it, because there were not many women with real power in the state apparatus.
"When I started out in politics in the late 90's, there were not many women ministers. Nowadays, nobody is really surprised to see a woman Prime Minister. What we need now is to ensure that the progress that took place in the last decades is not lost.
"All our girls and all our boys deserve a better future. For me, this is one of the main reasons that make it worthwhile to wake up and work every day."
This year's campaign theme is #BeBoldForChange, and, says Jourová, "Bold actions are exactly what we need. Many inequalities remain, and progress is slow and uneven. We will need to be bold to accelerate progress and to close the remaining gender gaps.
"For example, women's salaries are still 16.7 per cent lower than that of their male colleagues. At the current pace, the gender pay gap is declining so slowly that it will be 2086 before women are paid as much as men. In a couple of months, the Commission will present a proposal to fight for greater gender equality in the labour market and to improve the work-life balance for working parents."
Another issue where policymakers must take bold action, says the Commissioner, is violence against women. "Almost 25 per cent of women in the EU have experienced physical and/ or sexual violence by a partner. More than one in four Europeans think sexual intercourse without consent can be justifiable. More than one in five Europeans think women often make up or exaggerate claims of abuse or rape. I find these figures shocking.
"That's why I decided to dedicate 2017 to eradicating all forms of violence against women and girls. A crucial component of this will be to connect all the work that is being done across the European Union, engage all stakeholders - member states, relevant professionals, and NGOs."
This year's International Women's Day will also focus on economic empowerment, which to Jourová means, "having a job, which allows you to be economically independent. We have achieved a lot already: the employment rate among women is at an all-time high in 2016 of 65.5 per cent in 2016, compared to 55 per cent in 1997.
"Women are also making inroads into high earning professions. However, too many women, especially single mothers, are still struggling to reach economic independence in the EU. Women are still more likely to interrupt their career, to work part-time and to be paid less than men.
"Taking together all inequalities in pay, employment, and working hours, women earn 40 per cent less than men on average. The financial crisis has hit women harder; now that the economy is recovering we should ensure that growth means economic empowerment for everyone."
There is already legislation in place meant to ensure equal pay; it is enshrined in the treaty of Rome, which was signed 60 years ago. So why isn't the law enforced? "It's true that the effective application of the existing legal framework on equal pay remains a challenge in all member states. The situation varies a lot between EU countries: the lowest gender pay gap is 3.2 per cent in Slovenia and the highest is 29.9 per cent in Estonia."
She adds, "The Commission is constantly monitoring whether the EU law on equal pay is being applied correctly and it supports member states and employers in properly enforcing the existing rules. This can lead to a reduction in the gender pay gap.
"The Commission's recommendation on pay transparency, which was adopted in 2014, encouraged member states to take concrete measures on this. We also support social partners and other stakeholders to better document the gender pay gap, tackle its root causes, overcome gender segregation and stereotypes and break the glass ceiling."
It's been demonstrated that gender equality makes economic sense - companies with the highest representation of women in management positions deliver a greater return for shareholders. Unfortunately, companies have been slow to act on this.
"It's clear that the most significant improvements have taken place in countries that have taken legislative measures in this area - Belgium, Germany, France and Italy. Data from October 2016 shows that women still account for less than one in four (23.9 per cent) corporate board members in the largest publicly listed companies registered in EU member states.
"Just 7.7 per cent of boards were chaired by women. At the highest executive level, women accounted for only 5.7 per cent of CEOs. This is not only deeply unfair, it is also a waste of talent for the economy."
Jourová explains that the Commission is attempting to rectify this "through a comprehensive approach combining policy measures and financial support.
"In 2012, the Commission proposed a directive on improving the gender balance among directors of companies listed on stock exchanges, which aims at achieving, through a transparent selection process of the board members, a 40 per cent objective of the under-represented sex.
"While the proposal is not supported by all countries, the 40 per cent objective has pushed some countries to legislate and others have taken different national approaches, such as self-regulatory measures, to improve gender balance."
"Meanwhile," she adds, "we are also cooperating with all stakeholders: governments, social partners, businesses, NGOs. Between 2014 and 2016, the Commission allocated around €5m to projects aimed at improving the gender balance in corporate management."
One hindrance to gender equality in top management positions is the common misconception that women are more likely to leave work and stay at home with the children.
"Policymakers should be convinced that work-life balance is not a women's issue. It isn't only about parenthood either. Anyone can be faced with care responsibilities for a family member or a relative," says the Commissioner.
What's more, she adds, times are changing. "Policies addressing work-life balance need to consider the new situation in the world of work which, due to the digital revolution, has changed dramatically. We need to adjust to this and embrace the opportunities to better balance work and family, for example working from home."
Of course, the business world is not alone in struggling to achieve gender equality. Only a handful of women are at the head of powerful political institutions. The EU itself is not immune to this - its three main institutions, the Commission, Parliament and Council, are led by men.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has already announced he would not be seeking a second term in 2019, so could it be time for a woman at the top?
"I sincerely believe that women have proven their abilities as leaders. There are many women qualified to fill the high-level positions in the EU institutions. Women should be given the same opportunities as men to be nominated.
"I am convinced that, where there is true political will, it is possible to achieve gender balance in leadership positions in the EU institutions. I call on the European Parliament to actively support gender balance in the 2019 nominations and in future European elections."
Jourová is keen to encourage young women to enter the world of politics, explaining that, "In the current climate of rising populism, gender-balanced participation in politics can only improve democratic governance and increase public trust in our institutions. It will also deliver policy outcomes that are more inclusive of the needs of the entire population."
However, she understands that this will be somewhat easier said than done. "Political parties have the primary responsibility for ensuring that women come forward to represent them and that they are put in positions from which they can win seats. They need to engage in stronger actions to attract and retain women at all levels.
"These include high quality training and development programmes aimed at helping women become candidates for general elections as well as financial support. They should also encourage young women and women entering politics for the first time, often at local government level, including ensuring that the first experience of elected office is positive. The commitment of party leaders is important."
She adds, "I call on political parties to truly respect the principle of equal representation and transparency within their structures, to implement policies to support women's political participation, including setting ambitious targets and timeframes, to reach parity in politics. I encourage women of all ages to be proactive, to believe in their abilities, to engage in political parties and stand for election at all levels to be influential policymakers."
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