EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Women in the labour market


The participation of women in the labour market in the European Union has been growing steadily in recent years, and their increasing participation is seen as a key factor in achieving the goals of the European Employment Strategy and the Europe 2020 Strategy. At policy level, it is recognised that the economic success of Member States depends on women being able to reach their full potential. The Commission’s focus in this area is on ensuring that women have the opportunity to work when they want and that they can balance work with other family responsibilities.


The Commission Communication of 7 June 2000, Towards a community framework strategy on gender equality (2001-2005), noted that women are not as well integrated into the labour market as men. They generally have less regular and secure jobs, as well as the dual burden of domestic work, including caring responsibilities. Furthermore, in the majority of Member States, women’s employment rate remains lower than for men. Women with small children have the lowest employment rates, and the gender gap remains large – on average around 17% across the EU.

Labour market segregation remains high, even where women have high employment rates (including Denmark, Finland and Sweden). Women are concentrated in low-graded, service, public sector and part-time jobs, and tend to dominate in caring professions while men fill most posts in construction and agriculture. With respect to equal pay, moreover, on average women are paid less than men for the same work or for work of equal value.

In order to support the Commission and the Member States in implementing the Community objectives for promoting equality between women and men and ensuring that they are incorporated into Community policies across the board, a European Institute for Gender Equality was established in December 2006. The institute provides a clearing-house for information and exchanges of good practice in the area of equality.

Most recently, the European Commission launched a Strategy for equality between men and women 2010-2015, which focuses on a range of issues, including the economic independence of women, equal pay, equality in decision-making, and an end to gender-based violence. It follows on from the Roadmap 2006-2010 for equality between women and men. Actions promised by the Commission under the 2010-2015 strategy include: the promotion of equality as part of the Europe 2020 strategy and through EU funding; promoting female entrepreneurship and self-employment; assessing workers’ rights with regard to leave for family reasons; assessing Member States’ performance with regard to childcare facilities; exploring possible ways to improve the transparency of pay; supporting equal pay initiatives in the workplace; instituting a European Equal Pay Day; encouraging women to enter non-traditional professions, for example in the ‘green’ and innovative sectors; proposing targeted initiatives to improve equality in decision-making; monitoring progress made towards achieving the 25% target for women in top-level decision-making positions in research; and promoting an increase in the number of women in the committees and expert groups established by the Commission, with the aim of achieving at least 40% female membership. For an overview of government and social partner actions to address the gender pay gap, see the 2010 Eurofound study ‘Addressing the gender pay gap: Government and social partner actions’.

The specific issue of women’s membership of company boards has been a policy focus for both the European Commission and the European Parliament.

In March 2011, Viviane Reding, Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, met chief executives and board chairs from major companies to discuss how to achieve greater representation of women in top jobs, and the Commission also held a ‘mini-hearing’ on the subject with the EU-level social partners. Commissioner Reding then called on publicly listed companies to sign a ‘women on the board pledge’ by March 2012, making a voluntary commitment to increase women’s presence on their boards to 30% by 2015 and 40% by 2020, by actively recruiting qualified women to replace outgoing male board members (EU1109021I).

The Commission will assess in March 2012 whether there has been significant progress and whether ‘credible’ self-regulatory initiatives have been developed to increase women’s participation. If not, it will consider proposing EU legislation on the issue.

Meanwhile, in July 2011, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on ‘women and business leadership’, which calls for a binding quota for women’s representation on company boards if rapid progress on this issue is not made.

See also: atypical work; childcare; discrimination; employability; employment rate; equal treatment; equality between women and men; gender equality; gender pay gap; part-time work; social exclusion; 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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