EU policymakers must 'sustain efforts' to tackle gender inequality

Europe's 'journey' to gender equality is not over and women must be allowed to pursue their careers without difficulty, writes László Andor.

By László Andor

László Andor is the Secretary General of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and a Former European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion.

11 Mar 2014

A century ago, the first world war led to a massive entry of women onto the labour market. Progress was also made to ensure women's rights.

One hundred years later, much has been achieved to increase opportunities for women in all professional sectors. The journey, however, is not over and we need to sustain our efforts to tackle differences between women and men at work and in society and to ensure that women can pursue their careers without difficulty.

Women still fare worse than men on the labour market. On average, they are subject to lower wages, fewer employment opportunities and higher inactivity. Although these gender gaps have decreased in the most recent years, this is mainly due to male-dominated sectors being hit harder by the first phase of the financial and economic crisis.

"Women still fare worse than men on the labour market. On average, they are subject to lower wages, fewer employment opportunities and higher inactivity"

Even if female activity rates have increased during the crisis, women's participation is still lower than men's, and women tend to work fewer hours in total. In fact, for many households, women taking up jobs often do not make up for their partners' loss of job.

Women may work less in the economy due to personal choices, but also because of barriers in the labour market and society. While of course respecting the former, we need to remove the latter. Because women's lower participation in the labour market leads to reduced career opportunities, inferior pay and significantly lower pensions. 

What is the key to removing such barriers? Evidence points to an effective policy mix that includes flexible working arrangements, incentives to share unpaid work between partners, and available and affordable childcare during longer hours. 

Analysis in the commission's 2013 economic and social developments in Europe review reveals some distinct patterns among member states regarding the gender gap in total hours worked. Only a few member states, mainly Nordic and Baltic countries, have so far succeeded in putting in place the right policy mix, and combine high female employment rates with a low gender gap in total hours worked.

Some countries, such as Germany or the UK, have a high share of working women, who tend to work relatively shorter hours. Conversely, other countries, such as Spain or Ireland, have a lower female participation in the labour market, though, once in employment, women tend to work longer hours. 

Balancing work and family life is often perceived solely as a concern for women, but it is not true. Many men are willing to devote more time to childcare or household work but may run against obstacles such as a culture of long working hours and the lack of more flexible working arrangements.

A labour market that allows unpaid work to be shared more equally between partners by encouraging more men to work part-time or take parental leave could effectively help in reducing the gender employment gap. 

I firmly believe that progress towards true gender equality in the labour market can only be done by influencing and creating opportunities for both women and men. This will allow us to move from a model with one male earner and one female carer to a dual model where both man and woman are earners and carers.

However, achieving gender balance shouldn't be considered as a move towards a society where the profile of working women looks more and more like men.

Increasing the participation of women in the labour market is also crucial to meet the objective of 75 per cent of the 20-64 year-olds to be employed by 2020, as set by the Europe 2020 strategy, and to face future European demographic challenges in the long-run.

In the framework of the European semester, the importance of gender equality for the EU economy is also acknowledged in the 2013 country specific recommendations that advocated the provision of high-quality and affordable childcare, as well as adequate tax incentives for women to stay or to return to work.

In addition, the recommendations address the need to provide elderly care services to allow women to work, and to tackle both the pay and pension gaps. 

I am happy to see that there has been some progress following these guidelines, as noted by the joint employment report presented last November.

Member states have implemented measures to boost female employment rates and to reconcile work and private life, such as making more education and care services available for younger children and revising parental leave regulations to extend this right and to encourage more fathers to use it.

These are useful steps in the right direction, and I am confident that if we pursue these efforts, women will continue to make progress.

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