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Questions and Answers: What has the EU done for women? 50 years of EU action on Gender Equality for One Continent
Five decades of European Union action have advanced gender equality on our continent. EU have put in place laws guaranteeing equal pay for equal work, equality in the workplace and minimum rights to maternity leave. This is something we can and should be proud of: gender equality is a European achievement.
What do the Treaties say about gender equality?
The Treaty of Rome in 1957 already included the principle of equal pay for equal work. (Article 119 EEC, then 141 EC, now Article 157 TFEU). The background to this provision was mainly economic: Member States and in particular France wanted to eliminate distortion of competition between businesses established in different Member States. As some EU countries (for example France) had adopted national provisions on equal pay for men and women much earlier, these countries were afraid that a cheap female workforce in other countries (for example from Germany) could put national businesses and the economy at a competitive disadvantage owing to lower labour costs.
In 1976, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) decided in the Defrenne case that Article 119 EEC had not only an economic but also a social aim. This judgment paved the way for modern European gender equality law. It has been followed by an impressive amount of case law.
With the entry into force of the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1999, the promotion of equality between men and women became one of the essential tasks of the European Community (Article 2 EC). Since 1999, the EU has had the competence to take further action to combat discrimination based on gender (Article 13(1) EC, now 19(1) TFEU). This Article provided a legal basis for the Directive on the principle of equal treatment between men and women in access to and the supply of goods and services (Directive 2004/113/EC).
EU gender equality is also an integral part of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which prohibits discrimination on any grounds, including sex, (Article 21) and recognises the right to gender equality in all areas and the necessity of positive action for its promotion (Article 23).
In 2009, the Treaty of Lisbon confirmed once again the importance of gender equality in the European Union. Equality between men and women features amongst the common values on which the European Union is founded (Article 2 TEU), which means, for instance, that it will be used as a yardstick for determining whether a European state can be a candidate for accession. The promotion of equality between men and women is also listed among the tasks of the Union (Article 3(3) TEU), together with the obligation to eliminate inequalities. The Lisbon Treaty thus clearly reiterates the obligation of ensuring gender equality for both the Union and the Member States.
What has the EU done for women in the workforce?
The share of women working has risen from 55% in 1997 to 63% today. Yet the labour market participation of women in the EU is somewhat lower than in other regions of the world (U.S. 65%, Japan: 65%).
There are also enormous differences between Member States when it comes to women in employment. The female employment rate is lower than 60% in Greece, Italy, Malta, Croatia, Spain, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Poland while it is above 70% in Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, Austria and Estonia.
EU-28 female and male employment rates (in %) and the gender gap in the employment rate, people aged 20-64, third quarter 2013
Source: Eurostat, LFS
It is not enough to get more women into jobs: there is also the question of the quality of these jobs. 32% of women work part time compared to only 8% of men. While this can reflect individual preferences, it still leads to diminished career opportunities, lower pay and lower prospective pensions, underutilisation of human capital and thus lower economic growth and prosperity. Gender gaps therefore give rise to both economic and social costs and should be effectively tackled whenever they result from societal or institutional barriers or constraints (see IP/14/43).
Some Member States with the highest female employment rates also display a high share of part-time employment among women. Member States with an above EU average of female part-time employment are the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Luxembourg, Denmark and Ireland. This is then reflected in women's lower pensions, and their higher risk of poverty. The 'gender pension gap' shows that, on average across the EU, women’s pensions are 39% lower than men’s (IP/13/495).
Proportion of employed women working part-time (in %), 2012
Source: Eurostat, LFS
Only some Member States (mainly the Nordic and Baltic countries) succeed in combining high female employment rates with a low gender gap in hours worked. An effective policy mix appears to include gender-equal working time, widely available flexible work, incentives for the division of unpaid work within a couple, and employment-friendly, accessible and affordable childcare with longer day-care hours.
What is the EU doing to address outstanding challenges to employment in the Member States?
As part of its economic strategy, Europe 2020, all EU Member States have committed to raising the employment rate of adults to 75% by 2020. The Commission is following up on this national commitment by proposing country-specific recommendations to the Member States every year, which include the issue of female participation in the labour market. The 2013 Country Specific Recommendations (CSR) adopted by the Council advocated the provision of high-quality and affordable childcare as well as adequate tax incentives for women to stay in or to return to work. In addition, the Recommendations address the need to provide elderly care services to allow women to work more, and to tackle both the pay and pension gaps.
There has been progress following these Recommendations, as noted by the Joint Employment Report presented in November 2013. 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.
In addition to the Europe 2020 Strategy, the EU supports Member States’ objectives by providing funding for projects under the European Social Fund (ESF), including projects that:
Promote women’s access to, and participation in, all levels of the labour market and help close pay gaps and support women’s financial independence;
Promote women entrepreneurs and women’s participation in science and technology, in particular in decision-making positions;
Combat gender stereotypes in career selection and the professions, and promote lifelong learning; and
Reconcile work and family life and offer support for childcare facilities and carers of dependents.
Support the integration into employment of immigrant women.
What is the European Union doing on maternity leave?
Under EU legislation (Directive 92/85/EEC), all women in the EU have the right to at least 14 weeks maternity leave and to protection from dismissal for being pregnant. In 2008, the Commission proposed to improve the situation further with longer and better maternity leave (IP/08/1450). The Commission’s proposal – which would increase the minimum entitlement to 18 weeks paid at least at the level of sick pay – is still under discussion in the Council of the EU and the European Parliament.
Self-employed workers and their partners can enjoy better social protection – including the right to maternity leave for the first time – under new EU legislation on self-employed workers (IP/10/1029). Member States had until 5 August 2012 to transpose the Directive on self-employed workers and assisting spouses.
The law considerably improves the protection of female self-employed workers and assisting spouses or life partners of self-employed workers. For example, they are granted a maternity allowance and a leave of at least 14 weeks, should they choose to take it. At EU level, this is the first time a maternity allowance is granted to self-employed workers.
The provision on social protection for assisting spouses and life partners (recognised as such in national law) is also a considerable improvement from the 1986 Directive. They have the right to social security coverage (such as pensions) on an equal basis as formal self-employed workers, if the Member State offers such protection to self-employed workers. This helps provide a stronger social safety net and prevent women from falling into poverty.
What is the EU doing to promote Parental leave?
EU law (Directive 2010/18/EU) sets out minimum requirements on parental leave, based on a framework agreement concluded by the European Social Partners (Business Europe, UEAPME, CEEP and ETUC). Under the Directive, male and female workers have individual entitlement to parental leave on the grounds of the birth or adoption of a child, enabling them to take care of the child for at least four months (IP/09/1854). The aim is to help people balance work and family life, while promoting equal opportunities for men and women in the labour market. To encourage fathers to take parental leave as well, under the revised directive, one of the four months is not transferrable which means that if the father does not claim it, it is lost.
What are the objectives and results of the Strategy for equality between women and men (2010-2015)?
The Strategy for equality between women and men for the period 2010-2015 was adopted in September 2010 and reflects the Commission’s commitment to stepping up its activities in the field of gender equality (IP/10/1149). The Strategy lists actions to be implemented between 2010 and 2015.
The Strategy outlines six priority areas:
equal economic independence for women and men;
equal pay for work of equal value;
equality in decision-making;
dignity, integrity and ending gender violence;
promoting gender equality beyond the EU;
The mid-term review of the Gender Equality Strategy, published on 14 October 2013, found that, half-way through the strategy’s five-year time scale, the Commission is delivering on its commitments (MEMO/13/882). It has taken action in the majority of areas covered, in particular action to improve the gender balance in economic decision-making (see IP/12/1205 and MEMO/12/860), promoting equal pay (IP/13/165 and IP/14/222), tackling violence against women (see factsheet for more information) and female genital mutilation (IP/13/1153) and promoting gender equality through the Europe 2020 strategy.
The most recent achievement is the proposal for a Directive on improving the gender balance among non-executive directors of companies listed on stock exchanges (IP/12/1205).
The European Commission provides a detailed assessment of equality between women and men across all priority areas of the Strategy, as part of the annual progress report on equality between women and men in Europe (IP/12/371). The next progress report will be published in April 2014.
What is the gender pay gap and what has the EU done about it?
The gender pay gap is the average income difference between male and female employees across the entire economy. The latest figures (IP/14/190) show an average 16.4% gender pay gap in 2012 across the European Union. They show stagnation after a slight downward trend in recent years, with the figure around 17% or higher in previous years. The very slight decreasing trend for the past years is largely a result of the economic crisis, which has seen men's earnings decrease – especially in some male-dominated sectors such as construction or engineering – rather than women's earnings increase.
The gender pay gap has numerous complex causes thus tackling it requires a comprehensive approach. The Commission has carried out different legislative and non-legislative actions to address the persisting gender pay gap:
It is constantly monitoring the correct application and enforcement of the existing EU legal framework on equal pay at national level.
The Commission published a report in December 2013 on the implementation of EU rules on equal treatment for women and men in employment (Directive 2006/54/EC) addressing different elements of the equal pay principle (IP/13/1227). The Report found that equal pay is hindered by a number of factors, including a lack of transparency in pay systems. In inlcudes a section on gender-neutral job evaluation and classification systems, a summary of equal pay case law of the European Court of Justice, examples of national case-law on equal pay and examples of national best practices.
Today, the Commission adopted a Recommendation on strengthening the principle of equal pay between men and women through increased wage transparency. A number of recommendations aim at helping Member States to reduce the persisting gender pay gap (see IP/14/222 and MEMO/14/160).
Awareness-raising actions: the Commission has established a European Equal Pay Day to increase awareness of the fact that women need to work longer than men to earn the same amount. The fourth European Equal Pay Day took place on 28 February 2014 (see IP/14/190).
Actions supporting the business case of equal pay: a project called "Equality Pays Off" took place in 2012 and 2013. Its aim was to support employers throughout Europe in their efforts to tackle the gender pay gap with the provision of training and tools to highlight the business case for equal pay and to help them detect pay inequalities.
Support to national authorities and stakeholders: the Commission has also organised in recent years exchanges of good practice on issues related to the gender pay gap (tools to detect unequal pay, equal pay days). The Commission published an open call for proposals to support and fund civil society actions aiming at promoting gender equality and more specifically, actions addressing the gender pay gap.
In the framework of the European Semester, the Commission annually proposes Country Specific Recommendations drawing the attention of Member States to the need to address the gender pay gap and its main causes.
Gender pay gap statistics
What is the situation with childcare facilities across the EU?
One important factor in the pay gap is the burden of care that women carry. Figures show that the moment men become fathers, they start working longer hours. The same is not the case with women. When they become mothers, they either stop working for longer periods or work part-time – often involuntarily.
Only 67.8% of women with one young child (less than 6 year old) are working compared to 89% of men. Ensuring suitable childcare provision is an essential step towards equal opportunities in employment between women and men. In 2002, at the Barcelona Summit, the European Council set targets for providing childcare to: at least 90% of children between 3 years old and the mandatory school age and at least 33% of children under 3 years of age. Since 2006, the proportion of children cared for under formal childcare arrangements has slightly increased (from 26% to 29% for children up to three years of age, and from 84% to 86% for children from three years of age to mandatory school age). In June 2013, the Commission published a report on the progress towards the so-called Barcelona targets for providing quality and affordable childcare (MEMO/13/490).
What has the EU done to promote gender equality on company boards?
In 1984, the Council adopted a recommendation on the promotion of positive action for women (84/635/EEC).
In 1996, the Council adopted a recommendation, based on a proposal by the Commission, on the balanced participation of women and men in the decision-making process (96/694/EC).
In 2010, the Commission identified 'equality in decision making' as one of the priorities of the Women's Charter and of its Strategy for Equality between Women and Men 2010-2015.
In 2011, Vice-President Viviane Reding launched the 'Women on the Board Pledge for Europe' calling for publicly listed companies in Europe to voluntarily commit to increasing women's presence on their boards to 30% by 2015 and 40% by 2020. A year later, only 24 companies had signed the pledge.
In March 2012, the Commission took stock of the situation and found only an average improvement of just 0.6 percentage points over the past years. At this slow rate of progress it would take around 40 years before companies would naturally reach gender balanced representation in boards.
The European Parliament called for legislation in its resolutions of 6 July 2011 and 13 March 2012 on equality between women and men in business leadership in the European Union.
Between 5 March and 28 May 2012, the Commission held a public consultation inviting the public – individual businesses, social partners, interested NGOs and citizens – to comment on what kind of measures the EU should take to tackle the lack of gender diversity in boardrooms. The results have fed into the proposal presented by the European Commission in November 2012.
In November 2012, the Commission proposed a Directive setting a 40% objective of the under-represented sex in non-executive board-member positions in publicly listed companies, with the exception of small and medium enterprises (IP/12/1205 and MEMO/12/860). Companies which have a lower share (less than 40%) of the under-represented sex among the non-executive directors will be required to make appointments to those positions on the basis of a comparative analysis of the qualifications of each candidate, by applying clear, gender-neutral and unambiguous criteria. Given equal qualification, priority shall be given to the under-represented sex. The objective of attaining at least 40% membership of the under-represented sex for the non-executive positions should thus be met by 2020 while public undertakings – over which public authorities exercise a dominant influence – will have two years less, until 2018.
Has there been progress regarding the number of women on boards?
Although the Commisiosn's proposal for a procedural quota is not yet law, it is already having an effect. The share of women on boards in the major publicly listed companies is on the rise (see IP/13/943): today, women represent on average 17.8% of board room members in October 2013, up from 11.9% three years earlier, when the European Commission put the issue of under-representation of women on boards high on the political agenda. Since October 2010, the share of women on boards has risen 5.9 percentage points (pp), an average of 2.2 pp/year - four times the rate of change between 20031 and 2010. An increase in the share of women on boards has been recorded in all but six EU Member States. Progress is generally higher in countries with legislation in this area.
What has the EU done for victims of domestic violence?
Declaration 19 annexed to the Lisbon Treaty states that Member States should take all necessary steps to tackle domestic violence and help protect victims.
Women and girls who are victims of violence need appropriate support and protection, which is reinforced by effective and deterrent laws. The Commission has put such laws in place:
Victims of violence, in particular domestic violence, can soon count on EU-wide protection. The EU has put in place a package of measures to ensure that the rights of victims are not forgotten, and victims are treated justly. The Directive establishing minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime was adopted on 25 October 2012 (Directive 2012/29/EU) ensuring that victims are recognised, treated with respect and receive proper protection, support and access to justice. The Directive considerably strengthens the rights of victims and their family members to information, support and protection as well as their procedural rights when participating in criminal proceedings. EU Member States have to implement the provisions of this Directive into their national laws by 16 November 2015 (IP/12/1200).
Additionally, the Regulation on mutual recognition of protection measures in civil matters (see IP/13/510), will help prevent harm and violence and ensure that victims who benefit from a protection measure in one EU country are provided with the same level of protection in other EU countries should they move or travel there. In this way, the protection will travel with the individual. The law will benefit women in particular: around one in five women in Europe have suffered physical violence at least once in their life, according to surveys.
This measure complements the Directive on the European Protection Order which applies to protection orders adopted under criminal procedures. The EU Member States have to implement the provisions of this Directive into their national laws by 11 January 2015. The Directive means that women who have suffered domestic violence will be able to rely on a restraining order obtained in their home country wherever they are in the EU.
The European Commission also funds numerous awareness-raising campaigns in EU countries and supports grassroots organisations, NGOs and networks working to prevent violence against women. The main funding programmes are called DAPHNE III and PROGRESS. As from 2014, provision of funds will continue with the Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme, supplemented by funds under the Justice Programme. Examples of recent projects can be found here.
What is the EU doing to end female genital mutilation?
An estimated 500,000 women and girls in the EU alone have suffered from female genital mutilation. Ending this form of violence is among the priorities of the European Commission's efforts to combat violence against women (see MEMO/14/85).
In November last year, the Commission announced a new push to fight female genital mutilation in the European Union and beyond (IP/13/1153), with a series of actions to work towards the elimination of FGM. The strategy paper published by the Commission last November set out a series of actions to work towards the elimination of FGM, including:
Better understanding of the phenomenon: developing indicators (through the European Institute of Gender Equality and at national level) to better understand numbers of women and girls affected by and at risk of mutilation;
Prevention of FGM and victim support: making use of EU funding (such as the EU's Daphne programme, the Lieflong Learning and Youth in Action programme and the future Asylum and Migration fund) to support activities to prevent FGM, raising awareness of the problem, empowering migrant women and girls, and training health professionals and those working with victims. During 2013, the Commission distributed €2.3 million to projects specifically fighting FGM;
More effective prosecution by Member States: support enforcement of the existing national laws prohibiting FGM through the analysis of criminal laws and court cases brought so far, disseminating training material for legal practitioners, and enforcement of rights of victims to specialist support as under EU law;
Protection of women at risk on EU territory: ensuring correct implementation of EU asylum rules (notably the revised Qualifications Directive and the Asylum Procedures Directive) to guarantee protection of women at risk, raising awareness of professionals working with asylum and encouraging Member States to resettle children and women at risk by providing support through the European Refugee Fund and the future Asylum and Migration Fund.
Working to eliminate FGM at global level: addressing FGM in bilateral dialogues with relevant partner countries, working with the African Union and at the United Nations to promote global initiatives against FGM, advocating for improved national legislation and supporting civil society initiatives in countries affected, training and guidance for staff in EU delegations on FGM-related issues.
To ensure the various actions are followed up and remain on the political agenda continuously, the Commission has committed to monitoring and taking stock of progress on an annual basis around 6 February: the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM.
The Commission is all continuing to raise awareness about the practice of female genital mutilation through its Zero Tolerance Campaign, launched last year. Join the campaign by emailing your photo to COMM-SOCIAL-MEDIA-TEAM@ec.europa.eu or tweet using the hashtag #ZeroFGM.
Brussels, 7 March 2014
For more information
Factsheet – Actions to combat Violence Against Women
Factsheet – Boosting equality between women and men in the EU – Key actions and figures
Factsheet – Gender balance on corporate boards
Commission takes action to close the gender pay gap:
Press release: IP/14/222
Gender Equality in the European Commission - European Commission hits equal opportunity targets 11 months in advance:
Gender Equality in the World - Statement by the High Representative on International Women's Day:
'Statement by EU Commissioner Piebalgs on women in developing countries':