Better but still not there

, by Juuso Järviniemi

Better but still not there

The International Women’s Day is celebrated on the 8th of March each year. The roots of the celebration are in the feminist movements of the early 20th century who demanded inter alia better working conditions and suffrage. The original goals of the movement have widely been achieved but the day remains relevant, with e.g. inequalities in career opportunities, and harassment and violence against women evoking concern.

In observance of the Women’s Day, the Facebook page of the European Parliament asked the public which of the listed problems should receive particular attention. More than a half of the nearly 500 voters chose violence against women. Indeed, in an extensive survey – the first of its kind – made in 2014, one in three European women were reported to have experienced physical and/or sexual violence. The survey found that violence is often left unreported, speculating that speaking out isn’t necessarily socially acceptable everywhere in Europe. It is noteworthy that men are also subjected to domestic violence, both psychological and physical, which increases the prevalence of the problem. When it comes to violence, there seems to have been a positive change in attitudes. A Eurobarometer research made in 2010 noted that significantly more Europeans found domestic violence deserving of punishment, which aligns with the recommendations made that all violence should be dealt with publicly.

Outside the home, employment and wages are the most often discussed topics around the equality theme. At schools and universities, women are actually in a position of advantage, both outnumbering and outperforming males; the headline of The Economist article, ’The weaker sex’, refers to men. Yet still, the number of women in leading positions is lower than that of men, as often is reported. Some have explained it with differences in personality, saying that men are generally bolder and more ambitious, while some claim that the indispensable biological reality that only women can get pregnant and thus oblige their employer to find a substitute is the main reason.

There have been efforts to fix the situation, some of which have certainly been successful, but there are still employers that even illegally ask their female interviewee whether she intends to have kids in the future. However, in the historical perspective a positive change can be noticed: the number of female MPs has grown bigger worldwide since 1995 and Europe is making progress. Statistical parity is still far, though, since merely one in four European representatives is female as of 2015, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. One could be surprised that there are more countries from the sub-Saharan Africa in the worldwide top 10 than from Europe.

Gender quotas have been suggested as a solution to the problem, and they have in fact been used even for national parliaments around the world. The European Commission has taken imposing quotas on a European level into consideration, and there have been positive experiences e.g. in Norway which has had a 40 % rule for company directors since 2008. The system has also received criticism, with opposing arguments including the fact that corporations aiming for profit should have no reason to discriminate against the more qualified candidate (which may be false because the ability of the female candidate can be underestimated) and the fact that quotas like Norway’s would only benefit the women that are already successful in life. In any case, gender quotas have become increasingly commonplace in Europe since the year 2008, which has contributed to smashing the so-called ’glass ceiling’.

Once the woman has acquired a job that pleases her, she may find out that her male colleague is paid more for performing essentially the same tasks. In the year 2012, the gender pay gap in the EU27 was 16.4 percent. Some of it can be explained with different interests, as men are more likely to work in high-paying occupations like those related to technology (one could of course ask what can be done about that), and the fact that more women work part-time, which in fact is regarded as a solution to improve the career opportunities of mothers of young children. On the whole, the OECD has seen a slight decrease in the wage gap, but as the EU statistic noted, there are a number of factors that make the issue more complicated than what can be expressed with mere diagrams.

Both national and European authorities have addressed the topic of gender equality, which can be seen in the legislative measures taken as well as the campaigns and strategies made. A Eurobarometer made in late 2014 reports that more than two thirds of those surveyed found gender inequalities in their country less widespread than what they had been ten years earlier. Although things are better than before, more than 60 % think inequality still exists rifely in their country. These results seem to effectively summarise the current state of affairs: women are rising towards equality but there is still work to be done.

Article originally published in Undivided Europe:

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