Ministers want to speed up the gender equality work in the EU

2017-12-08 10:52

‘The gender equality work is moving way too slowly,’ said Swedish gender equality minister Åsa Régner during her opening speech at the #Equalityworks17 conference in Gothenburg. The event gathered ministers, researchers and representatives from EU institutions, the labour market and civil society for discussions on the role of gender equality for economic growth and fairness in the labour market. The ambition was to use the conclusions drawn as input to the EU social summit held in the same city nine days later. The conference was organised by the Swedish Ministry of Health and Social Affairs and the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research.

Minister for Children, the Elderly and Gender Equality Åsa Regnér’s statement is a reaction to the gender equality index that the European Institute for Gender Equality, Eige, presented a few weeks ago. The report shows that the gender equality work is progressing very slowly and is actually regressing in some EU member states.

The conference participants discussed how the gender equality efforts in the EU can be improved and what the member states can do. A shared strategy for gender equality in the EU has been missing since 2015 – a problem all conference participants wanted to see a solution to.

‘Gender inequality is a serious problem for all of us. The #MeToo debate and all the testimonies of sexual harassment and other violations show that the people in Europe are demanding equality for everybody. The slow pace of the gender equality work is simply not acceptable,’ says Åsa Régner.

Gender equality good for economic growth

During the first part of the conference, economist Åsa Löfström talked about the link between gender equality and growth. As a researcher, she studies labour market issues from a gender perspective – legal gender, that is, since no other type of statistics currently exists.

‘Gender equality leads to growth, regardless of how we measure it or what type of growth we mean.

Åsa Löfström for example showed that countries where women are more involved in the labour market have higher GDPs per capita. Moreover, this correlation has grown stronger over time as the level of gender equality has increased. She also showed statistics on how women’s participation in the labour market has increased in many countries, but also how birth rates have fallen.

‘In many countries, women have to choose between work and children. Countries with a higher degree of gender equality also have higher birth rates. Common to all those countries is that they have a social infrastructure with access to child- and eldercare. This is an important prerequisite for gender equality in the labour market, and is very much a political issue. It is the most important factor, for both people’s lives and economic growth. Don’t build that bridge, instead build preschools.’

Political decisions affect the lives of families and the choices available to them. The amount of money spent on child- and other care services is critical to whether or not people choose to have children. Löfström also pointed out that it is not just a matter of a country’s economic resources, but also of how they are distributed.

‘Sweden and Germany are two good examples, two wealthy countries that invest heavily in family policy, but while Sweden prioritises paying for services such as childcare, Germany instead gives families direct cash support. The latter approach does not encourage both adults in a family to work – on the contrary – and the differences between how much men and women work are therefore much greater in Germany than in Sweden.

According to Åsa Löfström, the countries with both high female employment rates and relatively high birth rates share an important feature: men take an active role in the care of children and others, both professionally and at a personal level. A key to gender equality and the growth that follows is that all people in society face equal conditions in all areas of life, from employment to childrearing and unpaid household work, regardless of gender. If done right, this leads to sustainable growth at all levels.

‘It should be easier for men to become nurturing fathers than it has been for women to get educated and enter the labour market – while also having had to fight for their right to do these things.’

‘We know what needs to be done; we just need to do it’

Several concrete measures for increased gender equality in the labour market were discussed. Access to publically funded childcare, shared parental insurance and individual taxation were some aspects identified as important. These are factors that research repeatedly has found lead to a more gender-equal labour market, Åsa Regnér pointed out.

‘We know what it takes. Any country that wants a gender-equal labour market can have it.

Barbara Helfferic, gender expert at the European Trade Union Confederation, Etuc, agreed.

‘We have the statistics and the knowledge. We know what needs to be done. It’s irrational that it doesn’t happen.’

Several conference participants identified – just like Åsa Löfström – the responsibility for children and domestic work as an area in need of change. The European Commission’s gender equality director Irena Moozova emphasised the importance of understanding the link between gender equality and growth also in the home environment.

‘So many more jobs could be created if only couples could share the unpaid care work equally. On average, women in the EU spend 20 hours a week on unpaid domestic work. Men spend nine hours. When women want to work but at the same time are expected to carry the main load at home, they tend to take on lower paid part-time jobs, which directly leads to increased salary differences between the sexes.’

Parental leave was another intensely discussed issue. The conference participants agreed about the importance of more men taking parental leave, at both a personal and a structural level.

‘Men need to take more parental leave, and in many cases there is a need for legislative change. In France, men get only 11 days of parental leave,’ said Marlene Schiappa, France’s gender equality minister.‘ The new president has declared gender equality a main focus area, and I really hope we will see some changes, both legally and culturally.’

Already in their opening speeches, Åsa Regnér and Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, who appeared by video link in the morning, mentioned individual taxation as one of the most important reforms for gender equality in the labour market. Joint taxation is an obstacle to women’s participation in the labour market.

None of the conference participants objected to the statement, despite the fact that many EU countries still use joint taxation. Ralf Kleindiek, state secretary of Germany’s Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, said it is deeply regrettable that Germany is still using joint taxation.

‘It’s terrible, it has awful consequences and everyone knows it. I really hope that the new government will change it. Hanging on to joint taxation is irrational and doesn’t make any sense, but so far nobody has had the courage to change it. It’s a real shame,’ he said.

More women face precarious working conditions

A report from Eige shows that, in all age groups, precarious jobs are almost twice as common among women as among men, and the pattern is most evident among individuals with low levels of education.

‘Many women are always at risk. It’s a major problem not only because we are not taking advantage of their potential, but also because they live in a continuous state of uncertainty and are always at risk of falling into poverty,’ says Virginija  Langbakk, director of Eige.

She pointed out that fair jobs require fair working conditions, but any measures implemented must also take the large number of people who have never worked into account.

‘Six million women and 2 million men in the EU have never had a job. Most likely to belong to this group are women with very little education, often born outside the EU. It is absolutely necessary to integrate an intersectional gender perspective in this issue, or else we will never achieve a labour market with fair conditions.’

Jevgeni Ossinovski, Estonia’s minister of health and labour, pointed out that another big problem is that many well-educated women in the public sector, including nurses and teachers, earn too little and do not demand better pay as they are afraid that doing so may cause them to lose their jobs.

‘It’s a shame for us as states in charge of our public sectors, that we continue to exploit this vulnerability.’

Great need for continued gender research

Joint EU strategies for gender equality, gender budgeting or gender equality budgeting, safe working conditions and a social infrastructure that makes it possible for everyone to make genuine choices in life are some of the proposals that Åsa Regnér mentioned in her closing address.

After the conference, the minister met with locals at the Blå Stället cultural centre in the immigrant-dense suburb of Angered. The meeting was designed as a citizen dialogue and enabled the participants to discuss the problems with a gender-segregated labour market and issues such as how various power structures interact. A group of participants pointed out that in order for everybody to be able to work in all sectors regardless of gender, some simple needs must be met, such as the needs for separate dressing rooms and dress codes that do not discriminate workers who for example wear various head coverings.

Åsa Regnér also expressed that continued gender research is of key importance.

‘There is a need for a lot more research. What has been done so far has helped us a great deal in the policy work, but there is still a lot we don’t know. We for example need more research on how to prevent men’s violence against women. We do know some, but we need to learn much more.’

See more from the conference in our film Voices from #equalityworks17.

Author Susanna Young Håkansson
Photo Laila Östlund
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