Where are the women? Gender Equality makes life better for everyone, so let’s work together to deliver it, argues Evelyn Regner

Women must be involved in decision-making; on corporate boards, be present at climate negotiation tables and in parliaments; In short women must be heard, writes FEMM Committee Chair
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By Evelyn Regner

Evelyn Regner is Chair of Parliament's Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality

10 Nov 2021

Last year, we had to scale down International Women’s Day significantly as it coincided with the first waves of COVID-19 to hit us. Nevertheless, to make sure that we address all the issues and topics surrounding women’s rights and gender equality, the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM) Committee launched the first-ever European Gender Equality Week in the European Parliament in October 2020.

And, after its resounding success last year, even more committees and delegations participated in the second edition in 2021. With 16 committees participating, 21 events were held during the week, covering a number of interesting topics relating to gender equality. 

I am proud to say that from 25-28 October 2021, the European Parliament demonstrated its commitment and highlighted again the importance of gender equality and gender mainstreaming in all policy areas. In addition, the idea of dedicating a week to gender equality is slowly spreading beyond the European Parliament. Soon, the European Social and Economic Committee will organise a similar week of events.

“I am proud to say that from 25-28 October 2021, the European Parliament demonstrated its commitment and highlighted again the importance of gender equality and gender mainstreaming in all policy areas”

This extremely positive development shows that gender equality is a cross-cutting issue that touches all areas of life; from disarmament to women’s rights in Afghanistan to care work. Yet it is a task that we can only accomplish together. I am convinced that, together, we will achieve a better life for all if we keep taking action.

To do so, we need to understand what’s happening. The highlight of the week was the presentation by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) of its 11th annual Gender Equality Index as part of a high-level conference. The message was clear: we have only progressed at a snail’s pace over the past year, but the current impact of the COVID-19 pandemic threatens not simply to bring that limited progress to a halt but to also reverse all the small steps taken so far. 

We are already losing some of the ground gained on tackling gender inequalities in time spent on unpaid care work, housework and social activities. This includes gender gaps in women’s and men’s participation in caring for and raising children or grandchildren, the elderly and the disabled, as well as in cooking and housework. The fact that we are experiencing regression here is not surprising, but it is important to point this out in order to shape our policies for the future. 

Indeed, a key focus of European Gender Equality week was the differing impact of COVID-19 on women and men. The FEMM hearing on common European policies in the field of care, addressed some of the issues highlighted by the EIGE Index, with experts agreeing that the EU needs to act. Care is important to each of us and the many negative effects of the pandemic - such as long-term illnesses, mental health deterioration and wellbeing - could be in a much better state if our care system was at the centre of our recovery efforts. 

Many jobs could be created that would provide a significant boost to our economy, with high wages and good working conditions, ensuring that ultimately, we all have access to affordable, quality care for our children, the elderly and ourselves. Upgrading the value of unpaid and informal care work, which is primarily done by women, would also help close existing gender gaps. In addition, the Parliament’s Employment and Social Affairs Committee discussed the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic on gender equality with a representative from EIGE.

Earlier in the week, Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee MEPs had highlighted the importance of gender mainstreaming in our recovery efforts and in implementing solutions based on lessons learned from the pandemic. Similarly, the Budgets Committee held a hearing on gender budgeting, which - according to the recent European Court of Auditors report - suggested that gender equality is far from being achieved. A lot more needs to be done to fully gender mainstream the European Union’s money.

“Upgrading the value of unpaid and informal care work, which is primarily done by women, would also help close existing gender gaps”

Another issue that many of the committees and delegations dealt with during the week was gender-based violence. Again, we know that because of the ongoing pandemic the situation is deteriorating, particularly for women, but we also must remember that it wasn’t so good before. An important dossier is the European Council’s treaty to combat violence against women, the so-called ‘Istanbul Convention’. The delegation for relations with Turkey therefore discussed the implications of Ankara’s withdrawal from the convention. 

However, there is also a lack of action on violence against women and a lack of data within Member States. By the end of last month, in my home country Austria, 23 women had been brutally murdered by their partners or ex-partners. There were also several attempted murders in the two days of our National Holiday alone - one of which we now know ended with the loss of a woman’s life.

It is therefore of the utmost importance that we address the issue of femicide, and Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights will do so in its upcoming conference on the topic. Similarly, the Committee on Petitions has taken up aspects of gender-based violence, such as EU Member States’ actions to eliminate female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage. 

We also need to look to the future. In this context, the Culture and Education Committee has explored - along with the European Commission - ways to bridge the gender gap in education, culture, media and sports.

“Women must be involved in decision-making; women need to sit on corporate boards, be present at climate negotiation tables and in parliaments; women must be heard. It is high time that the so-called ‘Women on Boards’ Directive is finally unblocked in the Council”

Meanwhile, the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee asked, “Where are the women?” in a conversation with a farmer and a researcher about rural women. FEMM also organised a side event to the Conference on the Future of Europe entitled ‘An Inclusive Economy for Women in the Green and Digital Transformation,’ which focused on an intersectional approach, and on how to eliminate the gender pay gap while addressing the main challenges of our time. 

A key issue in this context was also addressed by Legal Affairs Committee MEPs: Women must be involved in decision-making; women need to sit on corporate boards, be present at climate negotiation tables and in parliaments; women must be heard. It is high time that the so-called ‘Women on Boards’ Directive is finally unblocked in the Council.

These are just a few of the many events and discussions that took place during the week, which made clear that gender equality affects everyone and is still an issue everywhere - in all countries and in all policy areas. At the same time, it has also shown us something highly positive - That gender equality is taken seriously within the European Parliament and beyond.

During the second European Equality Week, we were able to make it clear that equality is a goal that, when achieved, makes life better for everyone. So, let’s take the next step and work together to finally achieve this goal.

Read the most recent articles written by Evelyn Regner - Gender Balance on Boards: High time for gender quality

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