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Gender Equality & the EU

As with most EU strategies, when one expires another takes its place… January 2016 witnessed the launch of the European Commission’s optimistic ‘Strategic Engagement for Gender Equality, 2016-2019’. This latest attempt at gender equality within the EU follows the European Commission’s ‘Strategy for Equality between Women and Men, 2010-2015’. As one might expect, the Commission sought to reduce gender inequalities and discrimination – by 2015 – in economic, political and social spheres. Top priorities included eliminating the pay gap, encouraging economic independence for women, increased gender equality in the decision-making process and eradicating gender based violence. The latest strategy cites similar objectives, with particular emphasis on the promotion of gender equality worldwide. Was the last strategy successful? Was it worthwhile? How does all of this translate to me, a 19 year old girl in the South of Ireland, procrastinating her way through a BA degree? Are current gender equality EU strategy goals achievable? A pessimist might lean towards cynicism in this regard, notwithstanding EU assertions that real progress has been made. I would like to be optimistic.

Defending equality is a fundamental value of the Union. The principle of equal pay for equal work was enshrined in the organisation’s ‘birth cert’, the Treaty of Rome. When Ireland first joined the European Economic Community (EEC) back in 1973, approximately 287,800 Irish women were in employment, representing a mere 27% of the workforce (in a population of 3 million). The gender pay gap meant that the average industrial wage for women (as a percentage of male wages) was 47%. Let me remind you, this was only 43 years ago! Once Ireland officially joined the EEC – and thus take on all of the obligations of membership, such as legal reform – things began to improve. Anti-discrimination regulations filtered down from the supranational level to the national level. The marriage bar was removed almost as soon as Ireland became an EEC member state, July 1973 to be exact. As a result, the number of women in the workforce increased and, by 1997, women ‘enjoyed’ a 42% employment rate. Gender-based differences in pay saw a steady decline. By 1989, the gap was narrowed to 61% (the average wage for women as a percentage of male wages) and to 94% by 2011. Ireland is now well regarded in terms of gender equality. It is ranked 8th on the gender equality index of the European Institute for Gender Equality (EigeEIGE). Progress indeed. Membership has brought some much needed equality reforms to Ireland. I have some reason to be optimistic here.

While inequalities are still present throughout the 28 member states, the Union and its institutions are taking visible steps – like the strategies cited above – to prevent discrimination and promote equality. The European Parliament houses a committee solely dedicated to Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM) which is continuously reviewing legislation and conducting reports into sexual discrimination. There is a credible amount of European legislation prohibiting the conscious or unconscious discrimination of pay based on sex, something which continues to be an issue in a Union in which the overall pay gap stands at 41.4% or 59 unpaid working days. The EU also co-funds a number of governmental and transnational campaigns aimed at tackling domestic abuse and violence against women and children. For the Commission, the 2010-15 strategy was indeed worthwhile and achieved significant results as regards women’s socio-economic ‘empowerment’, success that generates EU optimism vis-à-vis the current strategy. Maybe I can be optimistic too?

Despite progress in Ireland, the lack of female representation in the decision making process and the striking gender imbalance evident in the Irish political arena is of real concern. The last last election in Ireland saw 27 female TDs elected, making up 27% of the parliament. Presently, Ireland is ranked 88th in the official world ranking of Women in Parliament. This is behind several developing nations! Revelations such as this led to the introduction of gender quotas, for the first time, in the 2016 General Election. Quotas introduced in other EU countries – such as France, Greece and Slovenia – have worked quite well. Yet the issue of quotas is complex. Critics believe that such quotas undermine the status of women. I wonder if the outcome of the 2016 election will manage to push Ireland above the developing nations in the ranking of Women in Parliament?! Clearly, Ireland has a long way to go in terms of realising full gender equality. Perhaps I need to keep my optimism in check?

What about these ambitious EU equality strategies? A superficial glance at the documents reassures me that they deal with relevant concerns, issues that matter to me (e.g. equal pay, equality in the education system, women’s participation in the labour market etc.). The documents propose fitting actions. However, many of the actions suggested seem quite loosely identified. Earlier this year, the Commission itself admitted that the impact of the last strategy was diminished by insufficient attention to specific targets. In certain instances, the impact was diluted by insufficient attention to legislative measures and, depending on the circumstances, to suitable sanctions. At College, I have studied the EU’s somewhat famous Europe 2020 Strategy for jobs and growth. I didn’t notice much attention to gender quality here. Generic vague action plans are commendable – but all of this this is less reassuring for me. What about deadlines for achieving key goals? Where does the buck stop?

For a multitude of complex reasons, a stubbornly rooted gender inequality endures in Ireland and throughout the EU. Nevertheless, the various EU-driven schemes and strategies, implemented in recent years, make me cautiously optimistic.