How the new EU gender strategy fails east-central European women

The coronavirus epidemic exposes the care crisis and underlying class and regional inequalities — which the new strategy does not equip us to handle.

Mops on red wall

The alarmingly rapid spread of the coronavirus has exposed the depth of the care crisis in Europe. As more and more countries shut their schools and nurseries, someone will have to take care of the children—and it is advised that this should not be the grandparents, as they face higher risks if they contract the virus. Elderly people’s need for special protection demonstrates what feminists have long highlighted: Europe is struggling with eldercare infrastructure, at home and institutionally, and in both settings women carry out the lion’s share of the work.

Now that the healthcare system—a heavily feminised sector—is under pressure, it becomes abundantly clear who is doing these jobs, under what conditions and with what recognition. The Covid-19 crisis is exposing inequalities, not just between men and women but between women of different classes and regions.

The European Commission’s new gender-equality strategy for 2020-25 was released on March 5th, just as the crisis truly hit Europe. The document is however unlikely to address the fundamental challenges faced by women in the midst of the care crisis, which will have severe consequences especially for women on the peripheries, as in east-central Europe (ECE).

Supplying workers

The premise of the strategy is that gender equality is ‘an essential condition for an innovative, competitive and thriving European economy’, which ‘brings more jobs and higher productivity’. This is in line with what has historically driven the EU to legislate on equality between the sexes—the desire not to eradicate inequalities but to optimise the performance of the labour market by ensuring a steady supply of workers. Indeed, one of the key indicators through which the progress towards gender equality in EU member states is measured is the (increasing) proportion of women in the labour market. What this refuses to consider however, are the labour conditions which women are encouraged to enter.

As we have seen in east-central Europe, this experience has been far from emancipatory for many women, as a large proportion of the jobs created in the past three decades have been of poor quality: underpaid, low-skilled, socially undervalued and performed on zero-hours contracts. Kováts and Gregor showed in their research on Hungarian women that broad segments feel so exploited in the labour market that, rather than think how to escape home to do meaningful work and secure financial independence, their main concern is how to escape employment to be with their loved ones. This exposes the hollowness of the commission’s equation of gender equality with more women on the labour market, as at best out of touch and at worst wilfully class-blind.

While a whole section of the strategy is dedicated to fighting horizontal segregation in the labour market—the absence of women in tech, for example—there is no discussion of how to address the conditions which make the working experience so poor in female-dominated sectors, such as via improvements in wages or working conditions. Instead, the strategy commits to promoting women’s entry into sectors in which they are under-represented—by combating stereotypes. Yet it is primarily the fact that women tend to work in underpaid and socially undervalued sectors that accounts for the EU’s oft-cited gender pay gap of 16 per cent, not the differences in salaries between men and women occupying the same post. The strategy ignores this structural challenge and proposes instead to introduce pay-transparency measures to eradicate salary inequalities on an individual level.

Care chains and intersecting inequalities

Gender-equality awareness-raising and encouraging individuals to change their habits have a limited impact when it comes to addressing the care deficit—now, thanks to Covid-19, exposed as one of the most pressing problems Europe is facing. If such awareness-raising—heavily invested in—had been effective, women in core EU countries, where female participation in the labour market is higher than in ECE, would be taking up more paid work, thanks to increased male participation in traditionally feminine duties of household cleaning, cooking and childcare. Instead, this has been solved through labour chains which outsource care labour to women from ECE and other peripheries: western women’s ability to take up employment has relied on migrant women’s (often grey-market) care work, which does not challenge the gendered distribution of care labour in the slightest but rather exploits class and regional inequalities.

The narrow neoliberal framework through which the strategy challenges gender inequalities in the supply of care work is also evident in its focus on solving growing demand by encouraging (individual) men to take it up, as well as establishing institutions relieving women of these responsibilities. While both are certainly necessary, they are woefully inadequate to address the deeper underlying tension within capitalist societies—the need for reproductive labour to sustain productive labour, with the associated lack of valorisation and remuneration. Unless we fundamentally restructure ‘worker’ and ‘carer’ roles deemed separate and mutually exclusive, we cannot hope to eradicate this tension, no matter what work-life-balance efforts we apply.

Given the neoliberal gender-equality architecture of the EU, the strategy’s focus on labour-market participation and gender stereotypes did not come as a surprise. What is new is a pledge that the strategy will be implemented using intersectionality—the combination of gender with other personal characteristics or identities, and how these intersections contribute to unique experiences of discrimination—as a cross-cutting principle’. Unfortunately, this is conceived in a mechanistic and individualistic way: social structures are dissolved into personal identities and characteristics.

Aside from depoliticising social structures in this way, disadvantages are simplistically ‘added up’, as in this formulation: ‘Women are a heterogeneous group and may face intersectional discrimination based on several personal characteristics. For instance, a migrant woman with a disability may face discrimination on three or more grounds.’ Instead of thus essentialising identities, tackling the intersecting inequalities would, for instance, address how women of a certain region or class have it better, at whose expense and how these power imbalances are reproduced. The mechanistic notion of intersectionality advanced by the strategy would still allow that women and the economies of the west can rely on reproductive labour carried out by women on the southern- and eastern-European peripheries and other migrants—all of lower classes and very often facing exploitative working conditions.

Fuelling the gender controversy?

The definitions of gender (‘the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men’) and gender-based violence (‘violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately’) in the strategy follow those in the Council of Europe Istanbul convention. While this takes sexual dimorphism—that humans are born male or female—for granted, recent years of LGBT+ activism have indeed shifted the meaning of gender to include ‘the felt sense of identity’ too. The right instrumentalises this—indeed problematic—polysemy by citing the inclusion of the concept of gender as one of the main arguments against the ratification of the convention or any legislation which uses the term gender, even if it aims to tackle inequalities between men and women.

While the strategy consequently refers to ‘women and men, girls and boys’, in what appears to be a conscious effort to avoid the controversies caused by references to gender identity, it does so with a twist by always adding that they are, ‘in all their diversity, equal’. What is meant by this is explained in part through the intersectional approach, which takes into account six characteristics: sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age and sexual orientation. But it also partly refers to the ‘felt sense of identity’ (‘where women or men are mentioned, these are a heterogeneous categories [sic] including in relation to their sex, gender identity, gender expression or sex characteristics’).

As the strategy consequently treats gender inequalities in the liberal terms of socialisation (men and women are unequal because of stereotypes and unequal opportunities), this footnote may be no more than lip-service towards activists advocating for gender diversity. Yet the presence of this addition throughout the text whenever women and men are mentioned may indeed alter the meaning of the strategy, potentially watering down its focus on women’s rights for the sake of all presumed genders.

A missed opportunity

The crisis caused by the Covid-19 epidemic is forcing the EU to confront the consequences of its long-term neoliberal policies: the weakness of public institutions, the limitations of outsourcing public services to the private sector and the overall undervaluing of the care and reproductive labour sectors—all of which have class, gender and regional implications.

Unfortunately, the gender-equality strategy as presented is a missed opportunity to address these systemic challenges: it fails to overcome the technocratic and market-centred approach to gender equality, to redress the inequalities within the EU or to address the care crisis and the atrocious working conditions which undermine true equality between men and women.

First published on on 17 March 2020.