Barbara Matera: Gender inequality is 'vicious cycle'

Barbara Matera discusses women in politics, closing the gender pay gap and why she believes Parliament's gender equality committee can make a difference.

By Julie Levy-Abegnoli

08 Mar 2016

If statistics are any indication, gender equality still has a long way to go. The UN estimates that progress has been so slow in closing the gender pay gap that, at the current rate, it will be another 70 years until women's salaries are on a par with those of men. In the EU, the gender pay gap stands at around 16 per cent.

The majority of the world's largest companies are run by men, with only 4.6 per cent of Fortune 500 companies headed by women. In the political sphere, only 22 per cent of parliamentarians around the world are women; across the EU, around 29 per cent of members of national parliaments are women.

The European Parliament does not fare much better - only 37 per cent of its members are female. This paints a bleak picture as the world marks another International Women's Day on 8 March.


For Barbara Matera, this last statistic, "is why the work of Parliament's women's rights and gender equality committee is so important. I would like to see more female MEPs, to get a woman's voice on every issue. I think this would improve our dialogue and decision-making."

Unfortunately, even the designated committee struggles with gender equality; only nine of its 67 members are men, seven of which are substitutes.

Matera - a Vice-Chair of the committee - says, "our debates are meaningful, but they could definitely use more input from other perspectives. If our ultimate goal is gender equality, which is in the name of our committee, we can't ignore the voice of the other 50 per cent."

One of the keys to achieving gender equality is involving men in the conversation, helping them better understand the issues women face today.

The Italian MEP agrees that this would, "help further the cause of equality for all. Understanding the problem is the first step towards progress. Men definitely have a role to play in this regard, and their input is of course always welcome on women-specific issues."

Nevertheless, she believes that, "Men have a lot to contribute to feminism, but ultimately, we women understand the issues because we live through them. Therefore we need to lead the fight."

The gender equality battle is wide-ranging and Parliament's committee certainly has its work cut out. At the moment, says Matera, its main priority is, "ensuring the safety and wellbeing of women and children in the huge influx of migrants and refugees entering Europe as we speak."

"These women and children face myriad problems, including violence from those close to them and exploitation by smugglers and traffickers. We need to work harder to provide health services, especially for pregnant women and new-borns, and ensure they are lodged in sanitary conditions."

"Along with the problem of protecting female migrants and refugees, comes the problem of ending human trafficking, which disproportionately affects women and traps them in situations of sexual exploitation."

"Women coming into Europe face a huge risk of being funnelled into human trafficking networks. At the same time, human trafficking also ensnares EU women and women in non-EU European countries, and we need to monitor and prevent all of these types of exploitation."

The Commission estimates that human trafficking generates around €150bn in profit, and that up to 65 per cent of the victims are EU citizens. Other gender-related challenges are more ingrained in everyday life.

This is why, Matera explains, MEPs "continue to work on structural issues facing women already in Europe, such as supporting women in business and ending poverty among European women. All of these issues relate to each other, as inequality is a vicious cycle, so change we make in one area has ripple effects in others."

An issue many woman face is the gender pay gap. Nevertheless, Matera is confident solutions are at hand for swift progress.

She points out a new UK initiative, where, "starting this year companies will have to disclose the gender gap on their own payrolls, and several other member states, such as Austria and Sweden, have similar provisions that require companies to self-reflect on how they meet standards of gender equality."

"I think wage transparency has great potential to bridge the wage gap; it gives a strong message to the public that a problem exists, and that we all have a part to play in fixing it."

"We should see how this strategy works out in the UK and then see if it is applicable to the rest of Europe. This is an issue on which member states can learn from each other and adapt strategies to their own needs."

"We also must ensure that having a child does not adversely affect a woman's career. To do this, we should strengthen maternity leave and implement paternity leave where it does not exist; overall, make it generally easier for a woman to have a child and a career."

One tool policymakers have been using to ensure gender equality in business and politics is gender quotas. These, however, are a prickly subject, with opponents viewing them as patronising to women.

Matera rejects these claims, arguing that, "Women are underrepresented in almost every field, from entrepreneurship to public service, and we need their participation now, not later. I believe that every organisation benefits from having female voices, so we should support women in these fields however we can."

"Gender quotas", she insists, "are not patronising to women, because women truly deserve positions they are not getting; study after study shows that gender discrimination in hiring and payment practices is real. Of course, we need to work on changing the culture behind this, on both sides of the divide, but temporary quotas are a definite, immediate way to fix the problem."

Quotas aren't everything though, and the Italian deputy is quick to add that, "education is important too. We have to make sure we are educating the next generation of women to believe they can enter whatever field they want and accomplish whatever they want."

"We need programmes from the earliest age to teach girls a wide variety of skills, and not pigeonhole women into traditional roles. But for now, we have thousands of qualified, educated women in Europe who are not getting the positions and the pay they deserve, and quotas are a way to accomplish our goals sooner."

Unfortunately, so far gender quotas have not been particularly effective. Back in 2012, the Commission set out to ensure that by 2020, 40 per cent of all company board members would be women, but so far only 21 per cent of board members of the largest listed companies are women, up nine per cent since 2010.

Matera admits these policies are not working as well as they should be and that, "Clearly, we need some mechanism to strengthen this growth. Sanctions, which can be as extreme as closing down companies that don't meet requirements like in Norway and the Netherlands, may be effective, but we need positive action too: to reward companies that have greater gender equality, not just to punish those that don't.

"Spain, for example, has a system of giving priority for government contracts to companies that meet gender equality standards. European businesses don't need any more punishment; they should get benefits for implementing practices that benefit them. We're always working on ways to support female entrepreneurs and businesswomen, so why not support businesses that support them?"

Fewer women hold political office, and Matera underlines that, "The problem is that not enough women are interested in running. Maybe they don't want to face the negative media female candidates are exposed to, like questions about their family or their clothes. This is a cultural problem that we have to address, just like challenges facing women in business."

She does note, however, that "recent evidence submitted to the committee points to voters in most member states actually preferring female MEP candidates, when they run."

And what about her own entry into politics? Matera's candidacy in the 2009 European elections, running for then-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, was met with snide comments suggesting she had been selected for her looks rather than her political prowess. She subsequently became known as one of the 'Berlusconi babes'.

Yet Matera - a former television presenter and Miss Italia contestant - insists she has never felt objectified by the media throughout her career. She has, however, heard other women's stories, which prompted her to team up with MEP colleagues on a written declaration for the prevention of commercial sexism against women.

"We still see dehumanising objectification of women in advertising and other media, which we need to be more proactive in ending. There is already a directive stating that TV advertising must respect human dignity and not discriminate against women, but we think more could be done."

"We would like the Commission to go even further and prevent sexual objectification of women in advertising. The portrayal of women in the media has such a huge impact on how they are perceived in the real world, not to mention on how young people form their opinions."

So what's next for Matera? The lead campaign for this year's International Women's Day is '#PledgeForParity', and the MEP plans to take several pledges.

"I will take the pledge for parity, and this year I will focus on helping women and girls achieve their ambitions. As both an individual and a member of an organisation that has the power to make a difference, I pledge to promote education and increase opportunities for girls and women in Europe and around the world."

"I pledge to continue my work supporting female entrepreneurs and investors by providing pathways for women to fulfil their potential, and also by being a personal role model for women and girls in Italy and beyond."


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