Gender issues are vast and complicated, and require both social and policy action to tackle. The European Union is not doing enough on either front, and its struggle reveals the need for change, Valia Kalaitzi writes.
Progress towards achieving gender equality in the European Union (EU) has been noticeable, but it is slow, fragmented, and uneven. While the EU and its member states’ have expressed a high level of political and legal commitment to the principle of gender equality, women remain significantly under-represented at the highest echelons and their talents remain untapped.
Debate among policymakers, scholars, and civil society on the issue has only grown more complex, and, in some instances, less effective. The European Commission and its agencies do keep fighting against gendered barriers, such as the gender pay gap, yet many indicators have a long way to go.
In 2018, employment rates reached their highest levels in EU history, and more women are in leading positions than ever. In much of Europe, the gender gap in education is being closed, and even reversed in some disciplines. Despite this progress, women still participate in the labour market at an 11.5 per cent lower rate than men do, and earn an average of 16 per cent less.
Further, they are not close to reaching an equal share of the EU’s most important decision-makers, including only 6.3 per cent of CEO positions in major companies across the EU. Despite alignment with Sustainable Development Goal 5 – the goal of achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls – and laudable efforts to bring down gendered barriers, there are persistent and poorly addressed problems for women in the EU. For too many EU citizens, gender equality is still not a reality.
Because gender inequalities have social roots – based on norms, attitudes, and patterns of behaviour, rather than policies – tackling them can be uncomfortable, difficult, and time consuming. For governments in the EU, the gendered barriers they are trying to bring down are numerous, and greatly influenced by each country’s individual context.
Recent studies identified 26 such gendered barriers across several sectors, including problems women face with stereotypes, work/life balance, and sexual harassment. Facing this many issues at once can create a labyrinth of policy problems that is puzzling to navigate, in particular when these issues are inter-related, and cause problems at both the social and economic level.
The European healthcare sector offers a typical example of the complexity of pursuing gender equality. The sector, overall, is female-dominated, with women making up 75 per cent of its workforce. In the sector, women’s value is widely acknowledged, but women remain considerably under-represented in top positions. Women make up only 14 per cent of high-level decision-making positions, which shows they are encountering a range of work and socio-cultural gendered barriers that diminish their career potential. This effect is common across the EU, and present in many other industries.
These gendered problems are varied and diverse. For instance, gendered identity can increase the complexity of relationships in the workplace, and create further social issues for women. This is making the successful implementation of the policy objectives of governments even harder.
Gender scholars should be tougher on the EU’s response to these gendered barriers. To some, gender equality objectives are simply a side dish compared to the EU’s actual policy-making goals, which focus heavily on economic outcomes. To others, the EU is responsible for its inconsistent commitment and lack of collective action on gender equality.
Although this progress should be acknowledged, a greater challenge is yet to come, and the EU is not doing enough to prepare. It will only be able to address gendered challenges by adopting a whole-of-society approach for all of the EU, and doing everything it can to help its member states implement it.
It is worth noting that the pathway towards achieving gender equality is also one for individual ethics. Indeed, this is partly why policymakers have struggled with it so much.
All citizens must look to their own behaviour, and bring small, incremental changes into their daily living to help bring down barriers for women.
Achieving gender equality involves both policymakers and the public to accumulate the small things, like attitudes and behaviours in the workplace, localised policy decisions designed to support women, and being willing to make small sacrifices to help women achieve their goals. Alone, these decisions may not seem like much, but when repeated and combined, they can change common beliefs, values, and behaviours and bring about significant social change.
The challenging journey towards achieving gender equality has to take place at both the policy and social level. Policy actors, scholars, and civil society need to revisit their alliance, and at both the political and social level, become champions of supporting the achievement of gender equality for the benefit of all of society. The EU would be a great place to start.