EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Gender equality

Gender equality refers to equality between women and men with respect to their treatment, opportunities, and economic and social achievements. The concept is often viewed in relation to the workplace and labour organisations.

Initially, the principle of non-discrimination was applied to gender-based discrimination in relation to equal pay for women and men (Article 119 EC, now Article 157 TFEU) as the ‘pay gap’ between male and female earnings was – and still is – significant in every Member State. The concept of ‘pay’ was given a particularly wide definition so as to include fringe benefits and eventually also occupational pensions.

The legislation to promote equal pay depended on being able to show that there were comparable workers of the opposite sex whose pay was higher. However, the prevalence of occupational segregation in terms of gender – the fact that in many workplaces certain occupations were predominantly or exclusively occupied by one gender  made it very difficult in practice to identify such a comparator.

The European Union has long placed gender equality between women and men at the forefront of social policy. EU intervention in the area reflects in part theoretical development of the concept following debates and advances in the women’s movement and feminist thinking. For example, the definitions now extend beyond direct and intentional discrimination to include indirect discrimination and positive action. Furthermore, the area of concern now encompasses critical reviews of protective legislation on pregnancy and maternity, childcare and sexual harassment, as well as developments in equality law relating to access to employment, access to equal pay, working conditions, vocational training, pensions and social welfare.

Gender equality is now a key part of the Treaty on the European Union (Article 3 TEU) and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (Article 8 TFEU) and has a legitimacy in the Directive 2006/54 on the implementation of the principle of equal opportunities and equal treatment of men and women in matters of employment and occupation (recast). Union law also allows the EU to adopt minimum requirements and to support and complement the activities of the Member States in regard to the integration of people excluded from the labour market as well as promoting equality between women and men in regard to labour market opportunities and treatment at work (Article 153 TFEU).

Furthermore, gender equality is central to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which states that equality between women and men must be ensured in all areas, including employment, work and pay (Article 24). As regards secondary Union law, several directives setting out minimum requirements to ensure equal opportunities between women and men have been adopted since 1978:

In 2014, the European Commission published a Recommendation on strengthening the principle of equal pay between men and women through transparency.

In addition to the above, the Commission has proposed EU accession to international conventions to fight violence against women. The Commission's Women on Boards proposal, which has proposed legislation aimed at attaining a level of 40% of the under-represented sex in non-executive board member positions in publicly listed companies, with the exception of SMEs, also needs to be mentioned in the context of gender equality.

The European Union has supported all these gender initiatives by introducing a series of multi-annual strategies for equality between men and women, dating from 1982. The most recent of these is its Strategic Engagement for Gender Equality 2016-2019, which provides a framework for the Commission's future work towards improving gender equality. It takes over from the Commission’s Strategy for Equality between Women and Men 2010-2015. The Strategic Engagement focuses on the following five priority areas:

  1. Increasing women's labour market participation and equal economic independence; 
  2. Reducing the gender pay, earnings and pension gaps and thus fighting poverty among women;
  3. Promoting equality between women and men in decision-making;
  4. Combating gender-based violence and protecting and supporting victims;
  5. Promoting gender equality and women's rights across the world.

The Strategic Engagement sets out objectives in each of these priority areas and identifies over 30 concrete actions. It also reaffirms the Commission's commitment to gender mainstreaming, meaning that the gender equality perspective will be integrated into all EU policies as well as into EU funding programmes. The Strategic Engagement also supports the implementation of the gender equality dimension in the Europe 2020 Strategy. Progress in respect of this Strategic Engagement is reported every year and presented in a Report on Equality between women and men.

In terms of social partner actions, on 22 March 2005, a Framework of actions on gender equality was concluded by the cross-sector European social partners – the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), BUSINESSEUROPE (formerly UNICE), the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (UEAPME) and the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP). The joint text highlights four priorities which the cross-sector European-level social partners want the national social partners to focus on over the coming five years: to address gender roles, promote women in decision-making, support work-life balance, and tackle the gender pay gap. In line with the aims of this social partners’ Framework of actions, the European Commission adopted a Roadmap for equality between women and men (2006–2010) which pinpointed six priority areas for EU gender actions: equal economic independence for women and men; reconciliation of private and professional life; equal representation in decision-making; eradication of all gender-based violence and trafficking; elimination of gender stereotypes in education, training and culture; and promotion of gender equality outside the EU.

In institutional terms, in December 2006, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union adopted the regulation on the establishment of a European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). The institute was conceived as a technical support to ensure and monitor the implementation of European policies in terms of gender equality. The institute is based in Vilnius in southeastern Lithuania. Its key objectives are to contribute to and strengthen the promotion of gender equality, including gender mainstreaming in all European Union policies and to raise EU citizens’ awareness of gender equality. Its main tasks are to collect, analyse and disseminate information on gender equality, carry out surveys and organise European events to promote a European dialogue with regard to the gender dimension. EIGE has, among others, developed the Gender Equality Index which assesses gender equality in the European Union.

Finally, gender equality is one of the six policy domains under ‘Equal opportunities on the labour market’, part of the European Pillar of Social Rights, proclaimed by EU leaders at the Social Summit in Gothenburg, Sweden, on 17 November 2017.

See also: Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Unionequality between women and men; equal opportunities; European Institute for Gender Equality; equal treatment; gender mainstreaming; gender pay gap; non-discrimination principlewomen in the labour market.

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