Working conditions and sustainable work

Why 2020 is the right time for real progress on gender equality

2019 was a good year for gender equality in Europe: Ursula von der Leyen was elected as the first female president of the European Commission; the European Parliament had a record number of female MEPs elected; and the first ever Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli, was appointed.

On the downside, it was also a year when the gender pay gap in the EU remained intractably high, and efforts to reduce it are undermined by some on the political right. [1] In addition, the gender employment gap persists, with 78% of men employed compared to 66.5% of women in the EU. The gap at the senior level of business is even more acute: women in publicly listed companies hold just 6.3% of CEO positions. [2] Indeed, across the world, the situation is equally problematic. A joint study by Eurofound and the ILO showed that despite differences in working conditions across 39 diverse countries, gender-based discrepancies in job quality and a higher risk of exposure of women than men to sexual violence are issues of common concern.

Not unsurprisingly then perhaps, the new Commission has established gender equality as one of its main priorities in its first year with the forthcoming Gender Equality Strategy, which is expected to focus on three key objectives:

  1. closing the gender pay gap
  2. promoting women’s access to the labour market
  3. increasing the number of women in senior positions

Pushing forward on pay

The gender pay gap persists, with Eurostat calculating that on average women's gross hourly earnings in 2017 were 16% below those of men in the EU and United Kingdom. In addition, in jobs with similar profiles, women always have less earning power than men – in part, the price they pay for working part time or in the public service. These facts are alarming as gender differences in living conditions and quality of life can be partially explained by income, according to a recent Eurofound report on household composition and well-being. Thus the pay gap has very tangible effects on people’s lives and livelihoods, and indeed their retirement, with an equally worrying pension gap currently standing at 35.7%. [3]

One effective way to help combat the pay gap is knowing how much everyone else around you is earning. The new Commission aims to introduce binding measures on pay transparency to reduce pay inequalities between women and men. A Eurofound investigation of countries’ first experiences with pay reports and audits suggested that companies’ compliance was higher in countries where pay reporting requirements were simpler, but it also found that reports and audits were more meaningful when they provided richer information allowing for more in-depth analysis.

€360 billion lost to the gender employment gap

While the good news is that 46% of EU workers are now women, compared to 40% a generation ago, the employment gap is still significant, as are the differences between Member States in this regard. This gap represented an economic cost of more than €360 billion in 2018, which has barely narrowed since 2013, when it amounted to over €370 billion, or 2.8% of EU GDP.

While women’s labour market participation is rising, gender imbalance is distinct in many sectors and occupations: women dominate in health and education, for example, while men are overrepresented in transport and construction. Research has also shown that highly male- or female-dominated sectors are valued differently by society. Whereas workers’ wages usually correlate with their educational attainment – i.e., high skill equals high pay and vice versa – highly gender-skewed sectors stand out for the opposite, showing clear patterns of low skill/high pay versus high skill/low pay.

Glass ceiling still intact

These gender disparities are compounded by the fact that women continue to be significantly overrepresented in low-paying jobs. However, it should also be mentioned that in the highest-paying jobs, i.e. those accounting for the top 20% of employment by average wage, female employment has been growing faster than male employment. While this trend is positive, Eurofound’s policy brief on women in management points out that women are still underrepresented as managers in almost all economic sectors. And when a woman does become a manager, she is less likely to be a supervisor and more likely to occupy a precarious leadership position that has a higher risk of failure (a phenomenon referred to as the ‘glass cliff’). These factors all contribute to the endurance of the glass ceiling.

One policy measure proposed to combat gender inequality at the managerial level is improving job quality. Specifically, improving working time quality and reducing work intensity should be addressed in this context to make these jobs more attractive for women (and men too).

More generally, job quality is better in mixed occupations – those with the most balanced shares of men and women, such as professionals working in business, law and cultural activities or personal service workers. Unfortunately, at this point, mixed occupations constitute less than 25% of the workforce, but they can serve as examples of how to better achieve both job quality and gender equality.

2020 might see an accelerated dismantling of gender inequality if the forthcoming EU strategy succeeds in levelling the playing field in key aspects of women’s and men’s working conditions as well as in the labour market. Closing the gender pay gap, on the one hand, will contribute to fairer renumeration of individuals. Closing the gender employment gap, on the other hand, will bring €360 billion into the EU’s economy. And righting the gender imbalances in sectors (and occupations) will have benefits for all workers in the form of improved job quality and better working conditions. Everyone wins in a gender-equal society.

Image © goodluz/Shutterstock


  1. ^ Kate Andrews, The Spectator (2019), The problem with the gender pay gap obsession , 4 April.
  2. ^ European Commission (2019), 2019 report on equality between women and men in the EU , Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.
  3. ^ Policy Department for Economic, Scientific and Quality of Life Policies (2019), The gender gap in pensions in the EU (PDF), European Parliament.


Výskum, ktorý bol vykonaný pred vystúpením Spojeného kráľovstva z Európskej únie dňa 31. januára 2020, a následne uverejnený, môže obsahovať údaje týkajúce sa 28 členských štátov EÚ. Po tomto dátume sa vo výskume bude zohľadňovať len 27 členských štátov EÚ (EÚ 28 mínus Spojené kráľovstvo), ak sa neuvádza inak.

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