The Rise and Fall of Women's Economic Empowerment? How the Crisis Has Affected EU Gender Equality Policy

Zwei Stangen mit Stickern "Hoch" und "Runter".
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Es scheint, dass die Herausforderungen, vor denen Gleichstelluungsaktivist_innen heute stehen, durch die Finanzkrise und Austeritätspolitik noch deutlich verstärkt wurden
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Earlier this year in March the European Parliament (EP) chalked up a rather surprising new chapter in the development of its social agenda, voting down a gender equality report which highlighted the harmful effect of so austerity politics on women (  If you check Vote Watch EU you’ll see the EP doesn’t tend to vote against gender equality motions or policies.  

The rejection of the gender equality strategy is however an emblematic representation of tension in EU economic and social policies, which has concerned women’s advocates since the beginnings of the financial crisis.  Up until then, the EU had distinguished itself as an undisputed trailblazer in commitment to gender equality, adopting and implementing successively more developed and progressive gender policies since its inception in the fifties.  Amongst the institutions of the EU the EP had often been the most vanguardist, pushing for the most progressive gender equality policies.

So why, in 2014, has the EP suddenly declined to admit that women are particularly affected by the crisis? In many ways last month’s political defeat exposes some of contradictions woven into the fabric of the EU, which the financial crisis has gradually brought to head.

The EU has always functioned on a premise that economic integration could lead to a number of positive outcomes including peace, stability and prosperity.  The logic runs a little like this: the removal of trade barriers leads to increased trade and increased prosperity and cooperation. Economic integration has therefore tended to drive EU activity at the cost of tackling tricky political questions, such as “who are the winners and losers?”

Women’s work force participation and economic independence had arguably formed a key plank of the EU’s economic ambitions before the financial crisis. Preparations for the European Single Market laid out in the Maastricht Treaty went hand in hand with a new attention to social policy and were followed by directives on part time work, parental leave and pregnancy.  In the late 90’s the European Commission adopted a commitment to ‘gender mainstreaming’ the practice of auditing the effects of all policies on women and men (the 1996 Commission Communication Incorporating equal opportunities for women and men into all Community policies and activities). Then in the naughties the Lisbon Strategy  (2000) wider social and environmental policy aims included commitments gender mainstreaming and ambitious targets to boost women’s work force participation to 60%.  Increased childcare provision and reconciliation of work and family life policies were designed to facilitate this latter aim.

Member states agreed to ‘remove disincentives to female labour force participation and strive, taking into account the demand for childcare facilities and in line with national patterns of provision, to provide childcare by 2010 to at least 90% of children between three years old and the mandatory school age, and at least 33% of children under three years of age’ (  Known as the Barcelona childcare targets these formed a core part of the Lisbon Strategy.  At the same time the Commissioner of DG Employment Diamantopoulous held speeches discussing women’s double burden and the barriers it presented to employment.

Thus moves to boost women’s workforce participation, which could lead to women’s economic independence were marked by an awareness of the link between women’s unpaid caring responsibilities, at least in relation to child care, and their ability to work.  Policies engaged accordingly with this tension between paid and unpaid work.

By the time of its mid-term review however the Lisbon Strategy wasn’t proving particularly successful in the attainment of any of its targets, prompting a re-write where social aims and gender mainstreaming were replaced with a focus on innovation, growth, jobs and flexicurity – ‘an integrated strategy to enhance at the same time, flexibility and security in the labour market’ (European Commission 2007). 

The nacent awareness that conditions of employment and access to (state supported) childcare affected women’s economic independence, thus began to wane again from about 2005 onwards.   At the same time, gender equality advocates within the DG Employment within the Commission began to observe a decline in their access to and influence over policy formation (Colie and Galligan forthcoming 2015). Critics (e.g. Hubert 2012) argued that new ‘flexibilisation’ policies led to a proliferation of part time and short term contracts with poor employment conditions, held predominantly by women and creating a new class of working poor, populated mostly by woman.

Since the financial crisis austerity policies promoted by the EU Commission have prioritised adherance to strict fiscal rules leading member states strenuous efforts to cut spending. 

Many member states have achieved this through cuts to health care, childcare and public services, disproportionately affecting those who rely on and work within these areas the most – women.  DG Justice’s publications have documented how these cuts have affected women’s economic independence and how cuts to gender equality policy infrastructure (such as gender equality ministries for example) have also down-graded the representation of their specific political concerns. 

Many political researchers studying gender and political economy (writers like Isabella Baker and Steven Gill, Elizabeth Klatzer and Christa Schlager, Dianne Perrons, Jil Rubery, Catherin Hoskyns) would argue that these austerity policies and notions such as flexicury show an important flaw in dominant economic thinking – that we don’t understand the links between different parts of the economy. 

Thinking of paid work as an economic input and care work as a cost or a drain, renders women’s economic contribution through care work invisible.  It also leads to the implementation of policies aimed at increasing women’s work force participation, without compensatory policies to adsorb the burden of care which women’s employment leaves behind it. 

Tackling the tension between our ongoing need to reproduce and to care for children and the elderly on the one hand, and ambitions to increase women’s work force participation on the other, could however prove tremendously disruptive. This can be observed in accounts of activists try to promote gender budgeting, which often seeks to include social reproduction in macro economic modelling (see  Hoskyns 2004).

How would EU member states go about collectivising or marketising social care? Would families accept such moves?  Given the contested political nature of these kinds of questions and the complexity of present economic challenges, its not surprising that we can observe politicians declining to acknowledge or tackle the special pressures, which women have experienced since the crisis.  Gender equality activists are however rather unlikely to pack up and go home, quite yet.

The refusal to adopt policies or statements explicitly acknowledging the differential impact of the financial crisis (and associated remedial policies) on men and women is thus a touchstone for a wider economic tension which is not new. The tension is however much more visible within the EU owing to its enviable history of tackling gender inequality and of promoting women’s work force participation.

It does appear however, that the challenges now faced by gender equality campaigners pushing policy makers to recognise women’s economic contribution and to respond to their economic interests, have been significantly heightened by the financial crisis and austerity politics.


Francesca Bettion, Marcella Corsi, Carlo DIppoliti, Antigone Lyberaki, Manuela Samet Lodovici and Alina Verashchagina.  2012. The impact of the economic crisis on the situation of women and men and on gender equality policies, Synthesis Report, Directorate General for Justice Unit D2.   Available at… en.pdf

Coley and Galligan (forthcoming 2015) ‘Europe 2020: Prospects for realising gender equality in the post-crisis period’, European Integration Online Papers.

European Commission (2007). Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions : Towards Common Principles of Flexicurity – More and better jobs through flexibility and security, Brussels : COM (2007) 359 final (27.6.207)

Hoskyns, C., 2004. Mainstreaming Gender in the Macroeconomic Policies of the EU - Institutional and Conceptual Issues. In Paper prepared for the ECPR confernce, Bologna June 2004. pp. 24–26.

Hubert, Agnès (2012). Gendering employment policy : from equal pay to work-life balance, pp. 146-168 in Abels, Gabriele and Mushaben, Joyce M. (eds.) Gendering the European Union. New Approaches to Old Democratic Deficits. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.