A man’s world: EU crawls forward in gender equality

Women at work. Source: Flickr CC

While Canada has just introduced its first gender equal cabinet – “Because it’s 2015” – the EU Commission puts its new “Gender Strategy” even lower on the to-do list by postponing the vote on the document that was scheduled for this week. The strategy will contain suggestions about how to improve the situation, while actual regulations are not to be found. A view regarding the situation of gender equality in the EU, how to change it – and if anyone actually tries to.

A gender equal cabinet is a first in Canada’s history, which has many wondering what inspired this step. “Because it is 2015”, is how Trudeau explained the decision in an official statement. This gave Canada’s politics a lot of attention in international media, which could usually be described as modest, at most. In turn, this brings up the notion that gender equality might not be as self-evident as Trudeau claims.

In fact, other examples of governments that have implemented equality to the same degree are rare. When looking at Europe, a few are to be found though. Scotland and Spain both have had gender equal cabinets for a while, and Sweden, always the eager beaver, even goes so far as to call itself the “world’s first feminist government”.

Italy has joined the list as well, with a gender balanced cabinet under prime minister Matteo Renzi. It was also Renzi who nominated and strongly supported his former foreign affairs minister Federica Mogherini as the new High Representative of the European Commission. Which, with only 9 women out of 28 Commissioners, still lacks a certain balance.

“We cannot sit around and wait until the situation fixes itself”, states Angelika Mlinar, an Austrian MEP and part of the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM). “With the current pace, it would take 80 years for a balance to naturally happen, seems a bit too long if you ask me.”

The road so far

While some say women in politics address issues in a whole different way, others claim a higher efficiency of gender equal governments is not proven. Beyond dispute is that more women in higher positions come with more perspectives and more diverse inputs, something every decision-making process should strive for. Also, a gender balanced institution simply has more representative value.

The European Parliament (EP) has a total of 37% of women in it. There are a number of member states that crack the 50% line, but those all just barely reach a total number of 10 Members of parliament (MEP), which could make the balance a coincidence. The countries with most of the seats like Germany and France at least make it to around 40% of women – more than in their national parliaments.

So the EP could be at best described as diverse, though not actually balanced, but with its 751 members, it is too big to give the EU a face. The Commission comes closest to that, but if that face actually looks like the EU is questionable, with its 9 women out of 28.

When moving up another level, to the European Council, the numbers get lonelier. Only 3 out of 28 prime ministers of EU member states are women, which makes the Commission with its 1/3 of women suddenly look quite representative.

The European Council. Source: EC - Audiovisual Service

The European Council. Source: EC – Audiovisual Service

In a statement that Frans Timmermans, Vice President of the Commission, and Věra Jourová, Commissioner for Gender Equality, recently released, they admit that while gender equality is one of the fundamental values of the EU, it is not a fundamental reality.

This is part of the reason why the Commission wanted the role of the High Representative to stay, well, representative and therefore in the hands of a woman, after Catherine Ashton left the position.

Tara Palmeri, a journalist for Politico based in Brussels, explains: “It simply looks better for them to be able to say they have women in high positions.” It’s marketing. “Juncker wanted to keep Catherine Day around for a while, because she was a woman, even though she wanted to leave.” She had been the Secretary-General (SG) of the Commission since 2009, but left her position in 2015 after a year in Juncker’s administration.

Fatima Ribeiro, a staff member of the Directorate-General for Gender Equality – an administrative branch of the Commission – confirmed to Euroscope that president Juncker was in fact very keen to have more women in his Commission. He encouraged member states, who nominate the Commissioners, to include more women as possible candidates.

“He even suggested that he would promote portfolios of women over men”, Ribeiro adds. “In the end, he was quite upset because it did not show in the numbers. They stayed the same compared to the former Commission.”

The blame game

Ribeiro goes on to explain that the European Parliament is the real force behind the Commission’s equality, “since in the end the EP decides if it accepts or blocks the proposed candidates.”

“To actually block a proposed Commission is a measure that would be way too drastic”, claims MEP Angelika Mlinar. „Even though I agree that the parliament has a responsibility, politically and strategically the hurdles are far too high to actually go through with a blockage.” The decision could not get a majority, “and I would shy away from it as well”, she adds.

Terry Reintke, a German MEP and also part of the FEMM Committee, tells Euroscope that the EP did in fact put quite a lot of public pressure on the unbalanced list of candidates of the Commission. “To blame parliament is a bit too easy. In the end, it is clearly up to the political will of the president of the Commission”, Reintke states.

Bucks are passed, but the list of actual solutions is much shorter than the list of blames. According to Mlinar, there is a lot besides blocking votes that the EP can do for gender equality though. “We [as MEPs] have to be stronger, more connected, more strategic and more militant when tackling this issue”, she tells Euroscope. It is also important to her to promote gender equality in the MEPs respective home countries just as loudly as in the EU. “It is a strenuous effort”, she adds.

According to Palmeri, the problem lies deeper than the lack of will to hire women. “Men have it much easier with being on the road. Imagine if you’re a mother in your 40s and have children and a life, would you want to give it all up to move to Brussels?”, she asks, almost rhetorically. It’s not only the family aspect though. “Women just feel like it’s impossible to move up in a certain world”, Palmeri adds. “You have to be tough and pushy, traits that we are told are not really feminine”. This contributes to a lack of a “big talent pool of women”, as she calls it.

What contradicts a lack of a talent pool is the example of Italy, as DG staff member Ribeiro points out to Euroscope. Under its new government, it has put laws on gender equality in place that have since improved the percentage of women in higher positions by 21%. It needs to be noted that the numbers were very low to begin with, therefore improvement is achieved more easily. It still stands against the argument that regulations do not have any effects or there are just no women to be hired.

For Mlinar, the gist of the matter is that gender equality has not been moving forward since the 90’s. “The same questions and issues we faced when I got into politics are still on the table”, she claims, “if anything, we are reversing”.

Painting by numbers – A gender quota

Childcare and sharing of family responsibilities are often mentioned as a cornerstone of employment equality. They are part of restructuring an environment that does not facilitate women enough and is indeed far from equal conditions for both genders when it comes to pursuing a career. Support in the training of women as well as recruiters and employers to eliminate possible biases are other cornerstones, as Fatima Ribeiro explains, as well as flexible working hours that enable mothers to spend more time with their family.

To push gender equality forward in numbers, in some cases a gender quota is introduced – a certain percentage of women in institutions that needs to be reached. In theory, this percentage would be at 50%, in practice it usually lies at around 40%. Those quotas could be either voluntary or mandatory, both have been proven to have at least slight positive effects.

“A quota is not an end in itself, it is merely about changing an entrenched environment”, Terry Reintke explains, “it is an important instrument to get where we want to be”.

The Commission seems to have a similar notion. “Quotas are not the best solution, but they help to get where you want to get, as means to an end”, Fatima Ribeiro states. “Unfortunately, they sometimes put women in positions where they just serve as a figurehead or have to defend that it was not just the quota, but also their talent that got them where they are”, she adds.

To counter developments like that, MEP Mlinar is working on a “Gender Mainstreaming” report. It will contain suggestions on what EU officials and civil servants in the EU countries can practically do to make gender equality happen, and how to do it right. “The strategy is also trying to connect all parties involved, from EU institutions and the national governments to NGOs and even the UN to watch and learn from each other”, Mlinar explains. It is however not mandatory for anyone to read let alone to act on.

The first step might be to put gender equality back in a higher spot on the agenda. “The process is not always linear, and often other, seemingly more pressing issues dominate – which makes it even more important to stay on it and to set a sign”, Fatima Ribeiro concludes. A sign could be to make changes happen now, instead of calling everything a process. By downgrading the status of the Gender Strategy, many argue the EU does not seem to move forward, and if you’re not moving forward, you might be moving backwards.

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