Women in the Belgian labour market: discrimination persists

The participation rates of women on Belgian labour markets have risen sharply in recent decades and continue to do so. There are roughly as many young women studying as young men, and they enter the labour market at virtually the same rate. Nevertheless, real differences remain in their labour market position. In Belgian legislation and in the courts, certain obstacles to the equal treatment of men and women have yet to be removed. Women are also underrepresented in the upper levels of trade unions.

Labour participation and segregation

There are several reasons for the unequal labour market position of men and women. A significant factor is horizontal segregation on the labour market, that is, the fact that men and women end up in different sectors and occupations. Around 40% of all those at work in Belgium are women; however, women represent less than 40% of those employed in some sectors whilst they are overrepresented in others. Research shows that only 11% of women are employed in typically male sectors, which are chiefly found in industry. The service sectors, both private (retailing, hospitality and so on) and (semi-)public (such as hospitals, education and the civil service), on the other hand, contain a much larger concentration of women. Almost half of all women (48%) work in sectors which employ a greater than proportional number of women (50% or more).

This segregation has far-reaching consequences because working conditions can vary widely between sectors. Part-time work and temporary employment contracts are much more common in the service sectors, which means that they affect women more than men. This has an impact on their income. In addition, the income situation of men and women differs since women much more frequently stop work (temporarily or permanently) to look after a family. Finally, pay discrepancies still exist because of the different grading of jobs for men and women in occupational classification systems, and even because of direct discrimination.

The disadvantaged position of women is also apparent from their overrepresentation in the unemployment figures and their lower chances of finding paid work. By way of illustration, 85.4% of all Flemish men aged between 25 and 59 are in work whilst the figure for women is 57.3%. In addition, low-skilled women more frequently remain in the ranks of the long-term unemployed than men. There are also growing differences in the respective labour market positions of women, with the low-skilled being particularly at risk whereas highly educated women have a better chance of securing a more senior position, more stable career and better pay.

Equality in employment legislation

Formally there are a number of regulations in Belgian employment legislation which are intended to prevent sexual discrimination. In practice, however, many of these regulations do not stop women from being placed at a disadvantage. For example, job advertisements must not express a preference for a male or female candidate, but this does not prevent discrimination that may take place during actual recruitment. Even the burden of proof in cases of discrimination - the employer must demonstrate that his rejection had nothing to do with the gender of the candidate - offers no solution in practice.

"Europe" has undeniably acted as a motor in the fight against discrimination between men and women in employment legislation. Without European regulations and the judgments of the European Court of Justice, even the present formal sexual equality would not have been achieved. The judgment in the Stoeckel case in 1991 (Case 349/89) in 1991 is just one example, which resulted in the requirement to formulate the ban on night work in gender-neutral terms in Belgian legislation.

The Belgian social security system is of itself not discriminatory. However, since women are much less commonly the head of the household, and much more frequently have an "atypical" career (with part-time work, career breaks to start a family and so on), they are in practice placed at a disadvantage in the income substitution systems, such as unemployment benefit, sick pay and pensions, which are closely tied to the recipient's career.

Women and trade unions

Generally speaking, women continue to be underrepresented in the socio-economic decision-making bodies. This is apparent among other items from the composition of works councils, where consultations at company level take place. Whereas women make up 40% of all working people, only 27% of them put themselves forward for positions on works council s in the elections of 1995. This underrepresentation is greatest among office workers: despite the fact that women account for 54% of the total number of these employees, only 38% of the candidates in 1995 were female. Furthermore, 27% of manual workers were women, while 20% of the candidates for the works councils were female.

What is the involvement of women and the importance of specifically women's issues among the major Belgian trade unions?

Four out of 10 members of Belgium's largest union confederation, the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (ACV/CSC), are women, corresponding with their share of the active labour force. Despite this, women are less involved in the functioning of the union than men. ACV/CSC runs active campaigns to promote the participation of women in union elections, but the union remains a man's world - as evidenced for example by the timing and structure of meetings. Women are relatively well represented in trade union activities at company level (30% of all activists are women), but they are underrepresented in the higher echelons or executive bodies of the central offices.

ACV/CSC has a separate women's section at all levels (both central and local). This has the advantage that women come together to discuss specific problems, which can help mobilise attention for issues specifically affecting women. It can also help make women more resilient. The danger, however, is that the issue of working women is continually relegated to the women's section and thus becomes isolated from general trade union activity. As a result, issues such as part-time work, childcare and stress continue for too long to be defined as typical women's problems. Yet something of a turnaround can be detected in this situation recently, with men becoming increasingly involved in these problems. For example, the general trend towards shorter working hours means that men are under increasing pressure to begin working less too, thus raising the level of attention for the status of part-time workers.

Just over half the membership of the Belgian General Federation of Labour (ABVV/FGTB), the second largest Belgian trade union confederation, are women. Here again, however, this is not reflected in the research departments or leadership of the union. Both the recruitment of women in the trade union and their promotion to the higher echelons are weak. This is also connected with the fact that members who are already active in the union are often approached for these functions; women are less easily able than men to give a strong commitment to trade union work on account of lack of time and dual daytime tasks.

The promotion of "women's interests" within the ABVV/FGTB takes place in a National Women's Bureau, which has the task of promoting the flow of information to ensure that women's issues do not become isolated from the general business of the trade union. Chaired by the general secretary, the National Women's Bureau contains a fixed number of representatives from the central and regional union organisation. These representatives carry out this mandate in addition to their normal tasks, from which they are not released. This mandate thus demands a great deal of additional commitment, something which cannot always be delivered.

The National Women's Bureau gives advice on issues including job classification, parental leave, career breaks, night work, childcare and social security. It also organises campaigns and special events. (Monique Ramioul, WAV)

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