Evelyn Regner: 21st Century Woman

While the fight for gender equality is far from over, women are making strides in advancing their rights, gaining an ever-louder voice across the world. Evelyn Regner, Chair of Parliament’s FEMM Committee, tells Lorna Hutchinson that despite resistance from male-dominated power structures, this will be the Century of Women.

Evelyn Regner MEP | Photo credit: Bea Uhart

By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

05 Mar 2020

Evelyn Regner expects a lot from Ursula von der Leyen. As the European Commission’s very first female President, making gender equality a priority for her mandate, she has already broken the mould.

But it’s going to be a long road. “We have a Commission that looks the way it does because Ursula von der Leyen was really tough. All the Member States were asked to present both a man and a woman for commissioner. I’m from Austria and my country presented a man. Not a man and a woman. A man.”

As the European Commission prepares to unveil its Gender Equality Strategy for the next five years, Regner says that the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM) Committee is “waiting for it with impatience.”

The Strategy will focus on violence against women, the gender pay gap, gender balance on company boards, work-life balance and gender issues related to climate change and Artificial Intelligence.

“Thank God we have, for the first time, a Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli. After five years of national backlash, and almost no legislation in this field at European level, we get a Gender Equality Strategy. And this is also important globally; it’s not only for the women and men in Europe, it’s also a sign to the rest of the world.”

“As a woman, the longer your professional career is, the more dangerous it gets to earn less money than men; a 37 percent pension gap is really dramatic”

Asked which aspects of the Gender Equality Strategy are closest to her heart, she says that financial independence for women is crucial. “As well as being chair of the FEMM Committee I’m also a member of ECON [the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee].”

“Financial and economic independence gives you more freedom as a woman, to decide on your whole life. When you’re financially independent, it’s easier to tell a man ‘stop, don’t touch me, no violence.’ Or to say with far more self-confidence, no to sexual harassment in the workplace.”

With women in Europe facing a gender pay gap of around 16 percent, this shortfall compounds over time to a staggering pension gap of around 40 percent. “The pension gap is really dramatic. We see that. And it leads to poverty in women when they’re older. We in the Committee of Gender Equality and Women’s Rights already have many ideas on the pay gap, on pay transparency, and also on the pension gap.” 

“Of course, we’re at the beginning of the legislative period, but we’ve already had the debate in the plenary. We are already preparing a lot of initiative work, because we want to push the Commission - it’s our job to push the Commission to be courageous on that issue.”

“On pensions we have really a dramatic situation. Because as a woman, the longer your professional career is, the more dangerous it gets to earn less money than men; a 37 percent pension gap is really dramatic.”

“Another shocking piece of data comes from EIGE - the European Institute of Gender Equality, which does excellent work. We all know that the biggest risk of becoming poor as a woman is by having children. But did you know that the pay gap between men and women who have children under seven years of age is more than 48 percent?”

“Of course, this gap is a result of women staying at home with the children, or women doing part-time work. But it also means that up to the moment you have children, your chances are intact - I don’t say equal to men, but they are okay.”

Regner says that as a consequence of these sobering facts, the issue of work-life balance is key. “The goal should always be work-life balance: for men and for women to participate both in the family and leisure life, and of course professional life.”

Regner says that another key area of the Gender Equality Strategy is “everything concerning violence against women.” “The Istanbul Convention [on preventing and combating violence against women] should be easily agreed by everybody in the world. A woman who is hit or threatened by a man can’t have the same power; she can’t have a life where she’s free and can do whatever she wants.”

“We really need a strategy to effectively fight violence against women, where criminal law reflects those crimes against women.”

She goes on to say that most violence takes place at home. “By partners, by ex-partners, by brothers, by fathers. Spain really showed us that if you have mechanisms that are protecting women quickly and officially, you can improve the situation.”

“Women are used to having obstacles; we have grown up in a system where women are used to carrying a rucksack that is far heavier”

Turning to the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration - the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women’s rights – Regner says, “Beijing was the peak, that was really the peak of self-confident women. And when we look at the situation right now, we see the political language is far more modest. But I don’t want to be negative towards the situation here in Europe because, especially concerning men, I would say that a silent change has taken place.”

“It’s not exotic anymore that men are taking out the dustbin and doing their share; this is due to all those measures that were decided 25 years ago. And, of course, many national measures followed.”

“So many good things have been taking place, but we also have countries with a clear pushback [to gender equality] - this is happening even in quite progressive countries. But due to Beijing 25 years ago, many problems that weren’t even registered are now acknowledged and seen.”

“And these issues became issues that we talk about because of women. Women are used to having obstacles; we have grown up in a system where women are used to carrying a rucksack that is far heavier. And due to all these fantastic things having been decided, put down on paper and proclaimed 25 years ago, more awareness came into existence. So many things have improved, are improving, and are, in fact, better right now.”

But we cannot rest on our laurels, says Regner, who acknowledges a recent slowdown in the #MeToo movement. “#MeToo had a very positive impact, not only in scandalising [sexual harassment] and having debate on it, but also in changing structures. And that’s always the most important thing, that we change structures.”

“Yes, #MeToo is slowing down, but it’s still going on and we need to remain vigilant of these situations where somebody has power and they abuse that power – thinking that they have the right to grab, to harass, or do whatever they want.”

As for whether the glass ceiling – the invisible obstruction to women progressing in the workplace – is any closer to being broken, Regner says, “The directive on gender balance of men and women on boards was presented by Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding many years ago, and there is still fighting over that, after all these years. And what happened? We decided it in the European Parliament. Council silence - subsidiarity. So that’s our enemy. Subsidiarity. The Council always says ‘subsidiarity’ when they don’t want to do anything.”

“I’m so convinced that the 21st Century is the Century of Women. We have this huge resistance and backlash from old power structures because they realise this”

“It’s not only a glass ceiling that women are up against, it’s far tougher; the job market is a labyrinth where women are running an obstacle course. It’s all about power networks. Power is the cake and those who are in power don’t share it.”

Asked how to achieve more gender parity in fields which reflect an unequal distribution of women and men, Regner says, “In the European Parliament, for example, we have a Gender Mainstreaming Network of the committees. In every committee there is one member and a substitute responsible for gender mainstreaming. In the ECON Committee, for example, we look at the nominations for the European Banking Authority. We protested because again and again, it’s a man nominated.”

“We are aware that women are equally qualified, so look at them, make them visible. From committee to committee there are completely different issues - Foreign A‑ airs, for example, looking at having more women around the table in peace negotiations.”

Looking forward, Regner sees further empowerment on the cards for women. “I’m so convinced that the 21st Century is the Century of Women. We have this huge resistance and backlash from old power structures - especially certain Member States - because they realise this.”

She adds with a smile, “I think it’s a nice example that the winner of our LUX Film Prize was called ‘God is a woman and her name is Petrunya.’”

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