Europe struggles to close the gender pay gap

When it comes to gender equality, the European Union has always been regarded as a model for closing the gap between what men and women earn for the same amount of work. Equal pay for equal work has been a founding principle of the EU, dating back to the Treaty of Rome in 1957. The narrowing pay gap, combined with an ongoing push from EU institutions to improve gender equality would it make it seem like the EU is succeeding on the pay gap issue. However, government inefficiency combined with backlash from the growing far-right is setting Europe back.

How the EU is failing

The biggest issue with improving gender equality in Europe is that it’s happening too slowly. Belgian Socialists and Democrats Alliance MEP Marc Tarabella, one of the few male MEPs outspoken on the issue, said at the current rate, Europe would need 84 years to achieve gender parity. “The EU is a crossroad where we can share the experience and can invite countries to follow the best examples. But with 28 countries, it’s difficult; we don’t decide very efficiently.”

Across the EU, women earn 16.4% less than men on average, with the gap having come down from 17.7% in the last decade. A significant gap, but better on average that most world nations. But in a fact sheet released by the European Commission last ‘Equal Pay Day’ (30th October), they acknowledged that this 1% decrease is not due to any major policy or social improvements, but as a result of the economic crisis cutting the number of jobs in high level positions, the majority of which are held by men.

Of course there is more to the issue than the pay gap. A far more troubling concern is the pension gap, which sits at 40%. The Commission’s 2014 report on gender equality between men and women revealed women make up nearly half the workforce, but less than a quarter of high level boardroom positions. Women also tend to dominate the low-paying service sectors of employment, but are still severely underrepresented in traditionally “male-driven” careers such as IT, finance and the STEM fields.

Currently, responsibility lies with the member states to implement and enforce EU directives on gender equality. According to recent monitoring report, there are only two that do this: France and the Netherlands. Policy Advisor for the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) Judit Tanczos said member states are too eager to use the economic crisis as an excuse to avoid implementing equal pay legislation. “This is really just an excuse; when there is a crisis, we need more equality to overcome the crisis,” she said. “It just shows a lack of political will.”

Mr Tarabella strongly disagrees believes member states should prioritise meeting diversity quotas even in a crisis. “We have to recognise that women are efficient in high responsibility jobs, and studies show that in companies where more women were involved in high responsibility jobs, they did overall did better in handling the crisis”, he said.

“Men and women have different behaviour in different positions; women are less prone to risks in bank sectors, which is useful for companies in crisis.”

Impact of the right

The European Commission’s strategy for reducing the pay gap is by enforcing pay transparency laws. By forcing companies to be transparent about pay levels for employees, the Commission would be able to name and shame companies failing to meet European standards of pay equality. However, this strategy has been met with resistance from European conservatives. Last October, when the European Parliament successfully voted in favour of new transparency laws, several Conservative UK MEPs broke ranks with the party to vote against the bill. A spokesperson for the Conservatives told the Guardian “We do believe that the specifics of employment law are nationally sensitive and therefore should be made in individual member states and not at EU level.”

Proponents of gender equality have argued there is a conservative backlash against reducing the wage gap, brought about by the rise of the political right in Europe. European Women’s Lobby Senior Policy Coordinator Mary Collins accused conservative governments of trying to control women and viewing attempts to close the equal pay gap as a “financial luxury”. “Gender equality is about sharing power and decision making across the business world and the political world…conservative forces are still very much entrenched in the old patriarchal structure which are in place. There’s also this illusion that we can only work on gender equality when things are already okay.”

This attitude is well illustrated in Hungary, which has resisted pressure from the European Union to introduce liberal gender ideology into the political discourse. According to a study published by FEPS, the ruling parties in Hungary have fallen back on the argument that the EU’s agenda on gender equality is an attempt to force “radical socialism” on traditional family values. Similar arguments have emerged in the political discourse in Poland, which has worked arguments against gender equality into its ongoing shift towards the right. There, the EU is seen as trying to enforce its own values on traditional Polish culture. Most of Poland’s efforts toward improving gender equality were said to have been made very slowly, often under threat from Commission penalties. An example of this was the begrudgingly titled “ACT of 3rd December, 2010 on the implementation of some regulations of European Union regarding equal treatment”, which introduced EU regulations into national law.

The belief that gender inequality should be tackled at the national level rather than the EU has become a common argument against further gender legislation among conservative member states. In Denmark for example, gender equality is rarely on the agenda in political bargaining, and is instead left to the private sector to address. It is worth noting that despite criticisms from the European Parliament for neglecting to implement workplace gender quotas, Denmark has often ranked highly on gender equality levels, cracking the top 5 in the Global Gender Gap Index 2014. Under these circumstances, it would make sense that Denmark does not consider government quotas a priority, but it would seem there is a divide between their form of traditional small government conservativism (as also seen in the UK conservatives opposing transparency laws) and the reactionary right wing attitude represented by the likes of Hungary and Poland.

Mr Tarabella urged women voting in right wing member states to consider the role that kind of society would have for them; “I think the far right are enemies of women, because they consider the role of women to be at home with children, doing the cooking and teaching.”

The balance of work and family

The gender pay gap is intrinsically linked to the difficulty of reconciling work and family life for women. According to the Commission report, women are often disadvantaged by the need for adequate child care and paid leave, which makes it difficult for them to stay in the job market. Judit Tanczos said the pay gap hurts women in their 30s most, arguing there is a systemic discrimination against women when they reach childbearing age. “There is already a pay gap when young women enter the labour market, but it is not that big,” she said. “There is a notable increase when they get to childbearing age. And this pay gap also affects women at that age who don’t have children.”

FEPS are currently looking into how a progressive wage policy can be implemented while taking maternity leave into account. Ms Tanczos said an equal policy is difficult to determine when looking at areas where there is a clear difference between the genders that must be taken into account, such as childbirth. “It’s very interesting to see what equality between women and men means,” she said. “Should we give women some advantages in this case, when we recognise that there is a biological difference between women and men, and how do we take it into account?”

“If we use affirmative action for women, in a lot of cases we’re accused of discriminating against men by giving more to women. If you look at different proposals from the European Commission and other institutions, there are different opinions of how long maternity leave should last.”

“In my opinion, maternity leave is not a holiday, but it’s a necessary recovery period for women to physically recover after giving birth. It is not an advantage but a necessity that acknowledges women are the ones who give birth.”

Ms Tanczos argued the best maternity leave policy was the Maternity Leave Directive amendment proposed by the Commission in 2008, which was eventually withdrawn due to legislative deadlock and opposition from the European Council. The policy would have increased the minimum leave period from 14 to 18 weeks, during which a woman would also be entitled to around 100% of her salary without drawing from sick leave pay. This proposal also introduced shared paternity leave and flexible working hours to allow the father and mother to divide up work and care responsibilities.

While that policy was withdrawn, The Commission’s current proposal for leave outlined in the Maternity Leave Directive Roadmap borrows from some of these ideas. In addition to promoting flexible working arrangements, and encouraging men to take a more active role in child care, it also proposes increasing the availability of affordable child care alternatives, such as day-care and outside school care. In their outline for the Roadmap, the Commission hopes these proposals will alleviate difficulties for working parents and improve employment opportunities for women.

Plans for the future

Europe’s gender pay gap that has stagnated at 16%, its pension gap that sits troublingly high at 40% and the employment gap that sees women struggling to reach high level jobs. With the Euro 2020 goal of 75% employment for men and women looming on the horizon, the EU is fast running out of time to meet its target. Mary Collins argued if you look at all the socio-economic factors, the situation in Europe is actually declining. “Women’s labour market participation is around 63%, but if you break it down to its full-time equivalent, it’s actually at 58%” she said.

“When you look at life-long earnings, taking the pay gap and the number of hours worked into consideration, you can see that the gender income gap is almost 42%.”

Marc Tarabella suggested job quotas are a useful short-term solution for speeding up Europe’s gender equality, arguing they contribute to more women being hired for high level positions.

When asked if quotas run the risk of women not being hired on merit, Mr Tarabella dismissed that view as sexist. “This attitude does not consider that women are able to have jobs, responsibility, and the majority of people in high level studies are women” he said.

“In the economic sphere, women are disappearing despite being highly qualified. Society in general is a little bit macho in economic sectors. They prefer to give high level jobs to men; in those spheres we can consider quotas a good idea.”

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