Gender equality project Europe? - Introduction

Banner zur Konferenz "Gleichstellungsprojekt Europa?" des Gunda-Werner-Instituts vom 21.-22.März 2014
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The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.“

(Article 1a of the Treaty of Lisbon, 2007)[1]


The European Union is founded on a series of values, one of which is equality, and fosters equal opportunities between women and men. Gender equality is reiterated in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (Article 23). Although the European Union is frequently perceived as being, above all, an economic community, it is, first and foremost, a community of values. This is also reflected in Article 2 of the Treaty of Lisbon: “The Union's aim is to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its peoples.”

In what ways does the EU enforce gender equality as a value? What steps have been undertaken thus far in what areas, and how successful have they been? What challenges face emancipative gender equality policies in the coming years? What resistance is to be feared? These are just a few of the questions that this web dossier aims to examine.

In the light of the upcoming European elections in May 2014, this web dossier takes stock of the “Gender equality project Europe?”. With the help of experts from the fields of academics, politics and civil society, we will illustrate the issues and starting points for change. As many opinions from the EU member states as possible will be voiced and given the opportunity to describe their experiences of and ideas on how to shape EU policy. Focus will centre on the role of the EU as a gender-equality and gender-political actor. 

The selected gender-political topics span six areas and outline the main challenges facing European gender equality policy. These are:

  1. Economic independence between the genders
  1. Equal involvement in decision-making processes
  1. The combating of gender-related violence and human trafficking
  1. Integration, migration and asylum policy from a gender perspective
  1. The intersectionality and combating of (multiple) discrimination                                                                          
  1. Gender equality policy outside the EU


Each topic is outlined in brief below, along with the relevant contributions in the web dossier.


Economic independence between the genders

This area is the most comprehensive and a core concern of the EU. As far back as 1957, for example, the fundamental principle of gender-equal pay was entrenched in EU treaties. In spite of this, the so-called gender pay gap continues to exist; and the European Commission has introduced an Equal Pay Day to draw attention to unequal pay based on gender. The causes of the gender pay gap are numerous. Of special significance, however, is the fact that women continue to take on the vast majority of unpaid work in the home and family. On the one hand, the pay gap itself represents a disincentive for women to enter into gainful employment; on the other hand, extended (frequently family-related) breaks in employment in turn result in even greater wage inequality. As a result wage inequality is, on the one hand, the consequence of certain role concepts and, on the other, it consolidates the gender hierarchy division of responsibilities between partners.

There is a lack of women on the higher rungs of the career ladder in better-paid professions and certain industries (vertical and horizontal segregation). The gender pay gap and low income are, in turn, the basis for a potential risk of age-related poverty, which affects women most of all.

Achieving economic independence between the genders requires having gender equality on the labour market. To do so, labour market segregation, among other things, must be reduced, measures must be taken to avert poverty and social exclusion, and the gender pay gap must be eliminated. Measures aimed at facilitating the work-life balance, such as flexible labour market regulations and far-reaching support structures designed to look after children and those in need of care, are another important fundamental requirement.

Moreover, the EU has committed itself to promoting gender equality in all its activities. This concept, which is also known as gender mainstreaming, must be seen as a cross-cutting task and should consequently be carried through into every EU policy.


Equal involvement in decision-making processes

The imbalance in the way women and men are involved in decision-making processes is another aspect of inequality. The fact that women are under-represented in positions bearing decision-making responsibility is a problem for democracy and fundamental rights. Although the number of well-educated women is growing, they can barely be found in leading positions in politics, public office, business, the media, universities or trade unions. This means that measures (such as quotas) need to be taken to raise the share of women in leading positions in politics, business, science and academia, and technology.


The combating of gender-related violence and human trafficking

Violence against women exists in every social class and European country. For the European Commission, this represents a major hurdle to realizing gender equality. Studies report that one in four women has already been a victim of gender-based violence. “Gender-based violence” refers to the numerous forms of violence committed against women and girls, and, in part, to men and boys. Domestic ‘abuse’ (a more apt term for which is ‘sexualized violence’), stalking and rape are just as much a part of this as sexual assault and harassment or female genital mutilation (FGM), as is the physical injury caused to boys during circumcision. The various EU institutions agree that strategies are required to prevent violence being committed against women and girls. The European Parliament has been especially active on this issue over the past five years, as the Chair of the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM) in the European Parliament, Mikael Gustafsson, has emphasized in an interview with GWI.

Human trafficking represents a fundamental violation of human rights. The alarming figures paint a picture of one of the most lucrative businesses in the world, which has overtaken drug trafficking. Swift action is required to combat human trafficking, which is often used as an argument to justify a more restrictive policy on irregular migration or prostitution. A more stringent immigration policy or abolitionist laws, however, do nothing to help those affected by human trafficking: a vicious cycle which we can only escape through differentiated views and by focusing on the empowerment of the human rights of the exploited. The European Union has made the prevention and combating of this phenomenon a priority of its policy and is banking especially on collaborating and coordinating with the police and judicial authorities in the member states. The focal point should be to empower those who have been exploited. What challenges face the policy of combating human trafficking over the next five years? How can the individual EU institutions tackle the issue more effectively? How do the member states work together? What links to European immigration policy exist? These are just some of the questions that this web dossier seeks to examine.


Integration, migration and asylum policy from a gender perspective

Despite the gender mainstreaming requirement, a gender perspective is frequently lacking in integration, migration and asylum policies. Integration approaches mainly concentrate on labour integration and do not tackle the issue of integration outside the labour market. Some immigration policies still work to a gender-neutral approach which can have an indirectly discriminatory impact on women, such as educated women migrants. Moreover, recognising gender-based persecution as grounds for asylum is treated differently by individual EU member states. The current Dublin II System is problematic because it forces asylum seekers to apply for asylum in the first country of arrival. For this reason, gender equality and anti-discrimination policies are needed for ethnic minorities, women migrants and refugees, as is a common European refugee and asylum policy that includes a gender perspective and, for example, recognizes gender-specific reasons for seeking asylum. This will be one of the biggest challenges for the years to come.


Intersectionality and combating of (multiple) discrimination

Various forms of discrimination against women are founded on gender stereotypes which continue to be widespread. Stereotypes represent barriers to real gender equality. For this reason it is extremely important for the educational work to begin at an early stage in order to challenge stereotypical role models and/or gender stereotypes in education and training, the media and on the labour market.

It is equally important to combat discrimination, especially multiple discrimination. Gender represents just one of several features of discrimination, in addition to ‘race’ and ethnic origin, religion and ideology, disability, age, sexual orientation and sexual identity. For example, certain groups of women and men are more exposed to multiple discrimination than others, such as lesbians, homosexuals, transgender people, ethnic minorities or migrants, etc. The term ‘intersectionality’ describes the interweaving of various forms of discrimination in one person.

The large majority of member states have passed legislation that specifically prohibits direct and indirect discrimination and harassment. Measures to specifically address multiple discrimination are lacking, however.                                                                          


Gender equality policy outside the EU

The advancement of women’s rights and gender equality is viewed as a prerequisite for the democratic development of societies. This can contribute, among other things, to preventing conflicts. For this reason, the EU has made the conclusion of partnerships with non-European countries and the promotion of these issues one of its priorities. Having a gender perspective in EU’s foreign relations is just as important as in European neighbourhood policy, the Euromed (the Union for the Mediterranean) or the United Nations. There are gender equality action plans for development cooperation as well as the call for involving women in all stages of the peace process.

This includes successfully implementing various pertinent UN resolutions, especially Resolution 1325 (2000).


Over the past few decades, the EU has made progress in terms of gender equality, but many challenges remain. The next European elections will show whether the “Gender equality project Europe” can be continued and improved or whether the majority of the conservative or right-wing populist to radical right-wing forces, who oppose emancipative gender equality policy, gain the upper hand.