Commission issues reports on gender equality

The European Commission issued two reports concerning gender equality in March 2000. The first reviews progress made during 1999 to improve equal opportunities across the EU, and details action undertaken under the European employment strategy as well as plans to revise the 1976 equal treatment Directive. The second report reviews the implementation of a 1996 Council Recommendation on the balanced participation of women and men in decision-making processes.

On 8 March 2000, the European Commission issued its fourth annual report on equal opportunities for women and men in the European Union, covering 1999. It presents "an overview of the main developments and achievements in gender equality at European and national levels in 1999 and outlines the perspectives for 2000".

Equality in the European employment strategy

In the area of social affairs, the Commission report highlights the "European employment strategy" (EU9909187F) as a concrete example of the positive consequences of including the issue of gender in such a high-profile project: "In the two-year period since the launch of the European employment process in Luxembourg in 1997 [EU9711168F], equality between women and men has been integrated into the employment policy agenda. It is now accepted that Europe needs the skills, experience and active involvement of women from all walks of life in the workforce in order to strengthen its growth and cohesion."

The report states that the 1999 National Action Plans on employment took up the equality issue in a more dynamic way than in 1998, as a result of a new clause on gender mainstreaming being introduced into the 1999 Employment Guidelines (EU9810130F). In its 1999 recommendations for the development of Member States' employment policies (EU9909187F), the Commission stated that further action was needed to "close the gender gaps in employment, unemployment and pay, to redress the unbalanced representation of women and men across sectors and occupations and to improve care for children and other dependants".

The equal opportunities report focuses on efforts made by Member States to:

  • desegregate the labour market;
  • facilitate the reintegration of women into the labour market;
  • reconcile work and family life; and
  • reduce discrimination between men and women in social security and social protection systems.

However, the report also points out that much still remains to be done, particularly in the areas of:

  • pay. Women continue to be paid less than men and in the private sector, women's earnings are on average 28% less than those of men;
  • unemployment. More women are unemployed and for longer periods than men; and
  • integration. Women continue to be less integrated in the labour market, although new Regulations on the Structural Funds, and especially the European Social Fund, are designed to help improve this situation.

Legal developments

The Treaty of Amsterdam and recent rulings from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) have "equipped the EU with a wider-ranging legal framework in the field of equality, the report notes." Commitment to equality was enhanced with the coming into force of the Treaty on 1 May 1999, especially as the principle of equality is enshrined in Article 2, which sets out the main aims of the Union. The report points out further equality provisions in the new European Community Treaty, such as:

  • Article 3, which places an obligation on institutions to eliminate inequalities and promote equality between men and women in all activities;
  • Article 13, which provides a legal base to tackle discrimination based on sex or sexual orientation, among other grounds, and which has already formed the basis of legislative proposals issued by the Commission in November 1999 (EU9912218F);
  • Article 137, which allows the Council to act by qualified majority voting, under the co-decision procedure, when adopting measures covering equality between men and women in relation to labour market opportunities and treatment at work;
  • Article 141, which widens the scope for ECJ rulings in the area of equal pay by adding a reference to work of equal value; and
  • Article 141(3), which provides a new legal base to develop legislation in the area of equal opportunities and equal treatment in the areas of employment and occupation.

The report highlights seven ECJ rulings in 1999 in cases concerning equal pay and equal treatment between men and women.

Future work

Policy on gender equality will be reinforced in 2000, notes the report, as the Commission is due to issue an "equality package" before the summer, comprising the following initiatives:

Equality in decision making

A second Commission report was issued on 7 March 2000, focusing on the implementation of Council Recommendation 96/694 of 2 December 1996 on the balanced participation of women and men in the decision-making process. The Recommendation called on Member States to:

  • develop an integrated strategy to promote a balanced participation of women and men;
  • establish awareness-raising campaigns in this area;
  • collect data;
  • encourage examples of good practice; and
  • promote a gender balance at all levels of government bodies and committees.

This report reveals that there have been no dramatic changes in terms of the under-representation of women in parliaments, governments and committees preparing decisions, as well as in the higher levels of the labour market. According to the report, the average percentage of women in the national parliaments of all EU Member States and European Economic Area (EEA) countries is 24.5% and 22.5% respectively, ranging from 6.3% in Greece to 43.6% in Sweden.

The Commission states that combating the problem of under-representation of women has been hindered by the fact the term "balanced participation" has been defined differently in Member States. For example, Scandinavian countries and the UK have sought to meet a target of 50% participation, while other countries consider a participation rate of 30% to be sufficient. The report also states that Sweden and Finland, which have a tradition of equal opportunities policies, have made substantive progress, with female participation rates of 42.6% and 44.4% in their respective governments.

The report concludes that the Recommendation has "failed to achieve the result of a gender balance in decision-making positions". It states that the problem of under-representation of women in decision-making is structural and multifaceted and that establishing a gender balance takes time. It therefore concludes that "a policy mix including long-term political commitment, sound statistics, regular monitoring, appropriate structures anchored in legislation ... and financial resources is necessary to promote women's participation."

As far as Community institutions are concerned, the report concludes that action is continuing to improve the gender balance in terms of recruitment, although less progress has been made with regard to balanced participation in decision-making bodies. It states that gender balance in committees need to be tackled through concrete measures and that the Commission should be setting an example in this area.

Commentary

Gender equality in employment and decision-making are policy areas where progress is being made, albeit very slowly. As the Commission reports highlight, Member States have been trying, with varying degrees of success, to develop strategies that promote higher workforce participation rates for women and achieve better representation for women in decision-making processes. However, the issue of different political cultures in Member States and varying social attitudes to the question of equal opportunities and the promotion of women in the labour market appear to be a stumbling block which is not easily overcome.

Nevertheless, the strengthening of Treaty provisions in the area of equality and the fact that the Commission is planning to issue an "equality package" later in 2000 – notably with the aim of revising the equal treatment Directive – indicate that the goal of gender equality remains high on the EU's agenda. However, while such initiatives are to be welcomed and will provide increased opportunities for legal redress to combat gender discrimination, the primary difficulty remains that of changing social attitudes across the EU, if more women are to be taken seriously as decision-makers and workers (Neil Bentley, IRS).

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