First annual report on equal opportunities published

The European Commission recently published its first annual report on equal opportunities between men and women, reviewing developments both at the European Union level and within individual member states.

The European Commission adopted its first annual report on equal opportunities between men and women in the European Union at its meeting on 5 March 1997. The report: outlines the embodiment of equality principles in European Union policies; examines gender differences in the EU labour market; looks at Community actions to improve the interaction between work and family life; explores initiatives to aimed at achieving a greater involvement of women in decision-making bodies; outlines initiatives aimed a enabling women to exercise their rights; and provides an update on the recommendations of the 1995 Beijing Conference. Commenting on the publication of the report, commissioner for social affairs Padraig Flynn said that this was the first in what will be a series of annual reports covering the Union's policies on equal opportunities as a whole. Commissioner Flynn stated that the aim of the report was to give visible expression to EU policies on equal opportunities between men and women, to encourage debate on the progress achieved and policies to develop, and to act as a reference point for the Commission, member states and countries applying for membership of the Union.

Running through the report as a key theme is the concept of "mainstreaming", which was first mentioned in this context in the third Action Programme on equal opportunities, and has been considerably elaborated in the fourth Action Programme spanning the years 1996-2000. Mainstreaming was also a key priority defined at the fourth United Nations World Conference on Women held at Beijing in 1995. It is defined in the document as "the systematic consideration of the differences between the conditions, situations and needs for men and women in all Community policies, at the point of planning, implementation and evaluation...". Mainstreaming therefore essentially requires the consideration of gender equality in all aspects of the policy-making process

In February 1996, the Commission issued a Communication on "Incorporating equal opportunities for women and men into all Community policies and activities". This constitutes a considerable step forward in the approach taken to achieving equality between men and women since the inception of equality policy and legislation at Community level. Since its creation, the Community has recognised the principle of equal pay, and as a result, has developed a set of legal provisions aimed at guaranteeing equal rights for access to employment, vocational training, working conditions and, to a certain extent, social protection. Since the 1980s, a number of action programmes have sought to improve equal opportunities in the member states, and the Commission argues that these have had significant knock-on effects by stimulating actions at national level. The European Council at Essen (December 1994) declared that the promotion of equal opportunities for women and men was a key priority for the Union, on a par with the struggle against unemployment.

Mainstreaming and equal opportunities are also attaining increasing importance in the area of Structural Fund allocations. While equal opportunities has been an element in the European Social Fund (ESF) since its inception in 1976 and many women have benefited from ESF-funded training, much of this training continues to be for traditional "women's jobs". With the 1993 revision of the Structural Funds, equal opportunities became a principle running through the ESF, ERDF (European Regional Development Fund) and EAGGF (European Agricultural Guarantee and Guidance Fund), as well as Objective 3.

An important dimension of mainstreaming is the equal representation of women in decision-making bodies. The report shows that women remain under-represented at national, regional and local level in all member states as well as at EU level. Similar findings are in evidence in social partner organisations. This is despite the fact that both employers and trade unions have repeatedly declared themselves in favour of equal treatment for women and men. While some trade unions have instituted positive action measures to address the imbalance between men and women in their own structures, employers' organisations doubt the necessity for positive action.

Other important areas where inequality continues to persist - and is in fact in many ways accentuated by changing labour market and economic trends - are those of female labour market participation and its interface with household life. The report finds that gender differences are very strong in the labour market which is reflected in the segregation of women and men into different kinds of work and the concentration of women in "atypical" employment. Few women are employers or self-employed. Women's difficulties in accessing training and education exacerbate these differences and have served to maintain a substantial gender pay gap. The report underlines the importance of the lack of childcare facilities in perpetuating disadvantage.

Despite legal provision in support of equal pay for equal work problems remain with enforcing such claims and obtaining sanctions sufficient to act as a deterrent.

The report concludes by arguing that policy in the field of equal opportunities is currently in a transitional phase: "'Mainstreaming gender into all policies and programmes is a long-term task which will only gradually yield results." The diversity in women's situations is found to be increasing, and new strategies to develop equal opportunities at European level therefore have to take account of the differences between women as well as the disparities between women and men.

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