‘To be free, to thrive, to lead’: Commission unveils Gender Equality Strategy

The Strategy, which commits the Commission to including an equality perspective in all EU policy areas, is designed to allow women and men, in all their diversity, to be free, to thrive and to lead.

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By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

05 Mar 2020


The Strategy outlines a set of key actions for the next five years, including ending gender-based violence and stereotypes; ensuring equal participation and opportunities in the labour market, including equal pay, and achieving gender balance in decision-making and politics.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that while gender equality is a core principle of the European Union, it is not yet a reality.

“In business, politics and society as a whole, we can only reach our full potential if we use all of our talent and diversity. Using only half of the population, half of the ideas or half of the energy is not good enough. With the Gender Equality Strategy, we are pushing for more and faster progress to promote equality between men and women.”


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A Union of Equality is one of the major priorities of the Von der Leyen Commission, as outlined in her political guidelines. The Gender Equality Strategy is the first Commission strategy in this area of equality.

Unveiling the Strategy on Thursday, Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency Vera Jourová said, “As our society is undergoing important transitions, be it green or digital, we must ensure that women and men have equal opportunities and that inequalities are not further exacerbated by change. On the contrary; we have to create conditions for women to be agents for a fair transition at work and in private.”

At a joint press conference with Jourová, European Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli said that combatting violence against women was one of the main aims of the Strategy, adding, “To be free, to thrive, to lead - from the boardroom to the bedroom - you cannot be free if you are a victim of violence.”

According to Commission statistics, 33 percent of women in the EU have been the victim of physical and/or sexual violence, while 55 percent have been sexually harassed.

“To be free, to thrive, to lead - from the boardroom to the bedroom - you cannot be free if you are a victim of violence” Helena Dalli

The Strategy calls for legal measures to criminalise violence against women and extend the areas of crime where harmonisation is possible across Europe to specific forms of violence against women, including sexual harassment, abuse of women and female genital mutilation (FGM).

On FGM, Jourová said, “No culture can excuse any kind of violence and we have to do everything we can to eliminate this.”

The Commission will also propose the Digital Services Act to clarify what measures are expected from platforms to address illegal activities online, including online violence targeting women.

In the domain of education and work, despite the fact that 61 percent of university graduates in the EU are women, they earn on average 16 percent less than men - this shortfall compounds over time into an almost 40 percent pension gap.

On Thursday the Commission launched a public consultation on pay transparency and will table binding measures by the end of 2020.

The executive said that to allow women to thrive in the labour market, it will also redouble efforts to enforce EU standards on work-life balance to enable real choice for women and men to develop equally, both personally and professionally.

With women woefully underrepresented in leading positions, including EU's largest companies where only 8 percent of CEOs are women, the Commission said it will push for the adoption of the 2012 proposal for gender balance on corporate boards.

“As our society is undergoing important transitions, be it green or digital, we must ensure that women and men have equal opportunities and that inequalities are not further exacerbated by change” Vera Jourová

It will also promote women's participation in politics, including in the 2024 European Parliament elections, including through funding and sharing best practice. The Commission said it will strive to reach gender balance of 50 percent at all levels of its management by the end of 2024.

Asked in the press conference about the often thorny issue of setting gender quotas, Dalli called quotas “a necessary evil,” adding, “We have to use quotas, other wise we have to wait another hundred years for things to change by themselves.”

“The reality is that where quotas have been used there has been an improvement – unless we take positive action, things will not change. This is the argument we will be using with Member States who are reluctant.”

Following the announcement of the Strategy, Parliament’s EPP Group said, “We welcome the positivity and ambition of the Gender Equality Strategy announced today and we look forward to working with the Commission to ensure concrete action follows.”

Renew Europe said, “This long-awaited strategy is a good starting point, now action needs to follow.”

Carlien Scheele, Director of the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), said, “Our leaders have been given a clear road map to make the changes that Europe needs. The strategy sends a strong message that gender equality is a cross-cutting issue in all policy areas. Leaders have a responsibility to ensure that it is always considered in decisions affecting the everyday lives of EU citizens.”

“The Beijing Platform for Action is 25 years old, but countries are still a long way off from achieving women’s empowerment. ensuring that gender equality concerns are included in every policy, including the process of policymaking itself, the EU and the Member States will be on track to fulfil their commitment to creating a more gender-equal society for all,” Scheele added.

"The strategy sends a strong message that gender equality is a cross-cutting issue in all policy areas. Leaders have a responsibility to ensure that it is always considered in decisions affecting the everyday lives of EU citizens" Carlien Scheele, Director of the European Institute for Gender Equality

ENAR, the European Network Against Racism, said it was disappointing that the strategy does not include any specific measures or guarantees to ensure policies will be intersectional.

“There are also no specific actions to tackle the inequalities faced by women who are made invisible or overlooked in current gender equality policies. For example, policies to close the gender pay gap do not take into account the fact that many ethnic minority women are paid less than white women and ethnic minority men.”

ENAR added that policies to achieve gender balance in leadership positions make no reference to the underrepresentation of minority women in management positions.

“To ensure a real intersectional approach, the strategy should foresee proactive measures to ensure that racialised women are not once again made invisible, including by assessing and reviewing existing policies.”

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