Gender Equality and the EU: looking forward to avoid turning back

, by Maya Szaniecki

Gender Equality and the EU: looking forward to avoid turning back
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the European Parliament in Brussels. Credit: CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2020,

In 2020, the European Commission launched the Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025, setting out key policy and action aims to help combat gender inequality throughout the EU within these five years. As an international body bringing together 27 nation states, the EU plays an important role in shaping society across its member states, and even further afield. Is it therefore promising to see the organisation setting out a clear strategy to help fight one of the persisting issues of our time: gender inequality. This initiative is being led by Ursula von der Leyen who is, coincidentally, the first female president of the European Commission.

The Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 has seven principal objectives, spanning from fighting for better economic equality for women, to boosting female representation in social spheres, to addressing and combating gender-based violence and stereotypes, amongst others. Yet based on its past, it is important to question what progress the EU has already made, and whether it can be considered a true beacon for gender equality in years to come, based on its past.

Steps in the right direction

Arguably, gender equality has become a stronger priority for the EU in recent years. In her manifesto, von der Leyen placed great emphasis particularly on fighting the gender pay gap, and continues to do so, recently stating that “equal work deserves equal pay. And for equal pay, you need transparency. Women must know whether their employers treat them fairly.” When looking back at how this has been implemented in EU policies, some progress had been made even before von der Leyen’s appointment: although the gender pay gap persists at around 16%, this has been slowly decreasing in the past decade, down from 17% in 2010.

The EU’s 2019 report on equality between women and men identifies what may contribute to the gender pay gap in the first place, listing the undervaluing of women’s work, a lack of public help with childcare services and a lack of women in higher paid positions, amongst other factors. These issues are deeply ingrained in societies across the world, and require systematic change which the EU cannot implement on its own.

For this reason, it is encouraging to see the organisation still fighting to minimise the impact this has on women within the EU. The very creation of a European Equal Pay Day, which falls on the 10th November every year, highlights these persisting economic equalities between men and women, allowing for open and ongoing discussion over how this should be solved. Various member states of the EU have now implemented their own Equal Pay Days, in accordance to their individual pay gaps. Following this, the EU is also urging for more transparency with regards to pay for job-seekers and employees, and for widespread reporting on the gender pay gap. Although the EU has little authority to enforce this across its member states, the very publishing of its annual report on gender equality does shine a light on this inequality, and will hopefully help push for more change in future.

Politically too, women continue to be at a disadvantage to men, being underrepresented in decision-making bodies and therefore in the decisions made themselves. This does, however, seem to be slowly changing over time. While in 2014, 37% of MEPs elected were women, this percentage increased to 39% in the 2019 European elections. Further to this, the European Commission currently has the largest number of female commissioners, under von der Leyen, and is pledging to achieve a gender balance of 50% across its levels of management by the end of 2024. A global shift towards increased gender equality, pushed forward perhaps by things such as the global MeToo movement and increased interconnected activism through the rise of the internet, may be leading to a gradual move to increased female representation in politics.

The road ahead

The EU’s member states, however, continue to be behind this trend on the whole. In 2018, for example, only 3 out of the 28 EU member states had female leaders, as published in the EU’s 2019 report on equality. Currently, three years on, only 32.2.% of members of national parliaments in the EU are women. Although the EU can encourage its member states to improve female representation in politics, and can improve its own as it has pledged to do, the sovereignty of individual states means that this isn’t enforceable.

Despite this limited power of the EU, one policy which it has implemented, and which has negatively affected women, is the tampon tax. Despite the European Commission proposing a change to VAT rules in 2018, which would allow individual countries to adjust the tampon tax, this has not yet been approved by all members. The current policy is that there is a minimum of 5% VAT of menstrual products, which are still considered “non-essential” items. It is therefore not a surprise that, when the UK left the EU, many celebrated the fact that the country could finally abolish its tampon tax, due to it being free from the institution’s compulsory minimum VAT.

It seems that the EU still needs to do more to combat period poverty, starting with an elimination of the tampon tax. This should come along with an acknowledgement of the various stereotypes and stigmas which continue to harm women, such as those surrounding menstruation, and a plan to ensure these stop being a barrier to women achieving the same as men.

An equal future?

Gender equality is clearly a complex and long-standing problem throughout the world - one which still affects everyone and is far from being solved. Although the EU Gender Equality Index 2020 recently found that it would be a further 60 years before the organisation achieved gender equality, we can hope that this grim figure won’t become a reality. We need institutions like it to continue to pool resources and implement wider change.

The very motto of the EU, “united in diversity,” suggests that the institution places representation and inclusivity at the core of its values. We can only hope that from here onwards the institution’s policies and actions will reflect this with regards to gender equality, and be implemented as far as possible by its member states.

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