Equality and Gender in Europe

This is an archived article

The gender equality policy of the European Union (EU) is founded on a uniform approach encompassing:

  • legislation,
  • mainstreaming and
  • specific measures, or so-called affirmative action.

Funding is also available within the scope of action programmes, principally from the PROGRESS and Daphne financial programmes and the European Social Fund (ESF).

The EU’s gender equality policy primarily focuses on the gainful employment market, where numerous instruments to accelerate access to the labour market and the elimination of discrimination have been and continue to be provided. At present, two main focal areas are equal pay for women and equal representation of women in the management echelons of companies (keyword ‘women on boards’).

A further area of gender equality policy encompasses measures to reduce the use of gender stereotypes, thwart discrimination against women in advertising and combat violence against women. In these areas, a more consistent and effective approach is required from the EU.

A discrepancy exists between the directives on gender equality and the economic goals of the EU. Indeed, gender mainstreaming is still afforded a somewhat subordinate role within the current Lisbon Treaty, the new economic and growth strategy ‘Europe 2020’ and the current initiatives to combat the financial and economic crisis. Monetary and stability policy rules are protected by EU laws in which gender equality is not addressed. Macroeconomics is determined to be ‘gender neutral’, accordingly implying a genderless economy, in contrast to labour market policy, which certainly takes a more gender-sensitive approach in its attempt to reconcile work and family life, increase employment rates for women, eliminate the pay gap and promote women in decision-making positions.

Following the last European Parliament elections in 2009, the Standing Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality is again a driving force behind important women’s and gender-equality policy initiatives within the European Parliament. The Committee is actively involved in the debate on the new gender equality strategy of the EU as it pursues the current Roadmap for equality and is supporting its implementation with critical reports and initiatives. Moreover, the Committee also advocates more consistent consideration of questions of gender equality, particularly in relation to EU economic and external policy.

As the new Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, Viviane Reding has also injected renewed vigour into the Commission in terms of gender equality. Above all, she is vehemently pursuing the issue of the representation of women in decision-making positions, right through to the announcement of a statutory quota. The establishment of this position within the Directorate-General for Justice, together with the task area ‘Tackling discrimination’, enables concentrated mainstreaming of these issues. All in all, the multitude of advisory committees, groups and networks addressing the questions of gender equality and non-discrimination bundle a great deal of expertise within the scope of the Commission.

An interesting aspect for the future development of gender equality policy in the EU and its member states will be the further development of the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), which, following a lengthy and difficult process, was finally able to commence work in June 2010. In particular, the development of equality indicators and systematic, gender-differentiated data acquisition will improve assessment of EU policy from the gender perspective and thereby enhance gender-policy management. Observers will be interested to note the ways in which the Institute succeeds in providing new impetus through its work on gender equality in the EU.

Currently, the concern is less one of equality between women and men becoming sidelined by the additional shift in focus towards a more general anti-discrimination policy. A far greater risk is that presented by the increasing escalation of the financial and economic crisis in the European Union and the associated rescue attempts, which threaten to wipe both equality and anti-discrimination policy from the current political agenda.