Equality between women and men

Equality between women and men refers to the absence of discrimination and the promotion of equal treatment for men and women in and beyond the workplace.

Equal opportunities between women and men have always been at the forefront of European Community social policy. In fact, the level and significance of legislation and European Court of Justice decisions in this area exceed those of any other social policy area, and its principles have infused EU law elsewhere.

In its Resolution of 21 January 1974, the Council of Ministers re-affirmed the conclusions of the Paris Conference of October 1972, attaching ‘as much importance to vigorous action in the social field as to the achievement of Economic and Monetary Union and […] invited the Community institutions to draw up a social action programme providing for concrete measures and the corresponding resources...’. This was to involve action to achieve equality between women and men with respect to access to employment, vocational training, promotion and working conditions, while ensuring that family responsibilities and job aspirations are reconciled for all concerned.

To this end, Article 119 of the EC Treaty (now Article 157 TFEU), was supplemented by a directive on equal pay for women and men (Council Directive 75/117/EEC of 10 February 1975). In the Treaty of Amsterdam [1997], a new task was included for the Community to promote ‘equality between women and men’ and the concept of gender mainstreaming was introduced (Article 3).

There is also an extensive body of related law, including Council Directive 76/207/EEC of 9 February 1976 on the implementation of the principle of equal treatment for women and men as regards access to employment, vocational training and promotion, and working conditions (as revised by Council Directive 2002/73/EC of 23 September 2002); Council Directive 79/7/EEC of 19 December 1978 on equal treatment in social security; Council Directive 86/378/EEC of 24 July 1986 on the implementation of the principle of equal treatment for women and men in occupational social security schemes; and Council Directive 86/613/EEC of 11 December 1986 on the application of the principle of equal treatment between women and men engaged in an activity in a self-employed capacity, and on the protection of self-employed women during pregnancy and maternity.

Furthermore, a considerable body of case law exists in the area, beginning with Defrenne v. Belgium, Case 80/70 [1971]. In particular, Article 119 EC (now Article 157 TFEU) and the initiatives that followed have received comment from the ECJ in its judgment in Defrenne v. SABENA (Gabrielle Defrenne v. Société Anonyme Belge de Navigation Arienne Sabena, Case 43/75).

Soft law’ in the area includes the Recommendation on the promotion of positive action for women (Council Recommendation 84/635/EEC of 13 December 1984). Together with the other legal measures, it contributed to the prominence of EU policy on equality between women and men, to the extent that equal treatment of women and men has achieved the status of a ‘fundamental right’ (see Article 23 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union) with the coming into effect of the Treaty of Lisbon on 1 December 2009.

See also: discrimination; equal treatment; gender equality; gender mainstreaming; women in the labour market; work-life balance.


Please note: the European industrial relations dictionary is updated annually. If errors are brought to our attention, we will try to correct them.


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