How we can successfully avoid paying the high price of gender inequality
Although we have made progress, inequality remains widespread. And it comes at a price. Director Carlien Scheele identified the high price we face if we do not achieve gender equality by presenting EIGE’s research on how we can overcome these remaining challenges at ETUI-ETUC’s conference: “A Blueprint for Equality”, held in Brussels on 24 June 2022.
If we work together, we can overcome inequality.
I start my speech with this because I know achieving this goal is not easy. Inequality is not a new concept. It has been around in some form or other for thousands of years. And this may lead some people to think that, maybe, inequality is inevitable. That human beings are unequal by nature.
Similar arguments have been made about gender equality throughout human history. Gender norms, ideas about how women and men should be and act, are internalised early in life. These ideas are so strong that many do not remember to recognise them for what they truly are.
Ideas. Social constructions.
There is nothing inevitable about gender inequality. Gender relations, the same as all inequalities, are not fixed, but malleable. They can be overcome.
But not easily. Because these social constructions are reinforced by structural policy choices that fail to account for gender perspectives.
We have made astonishing progress in the last 50 or so years, unravelling piece by piece these structural biases about gender roles that are embedded deep within our societies.
But. We have a way to go. I’ll give you now three examples of how gender inequality continues to cost us all.
First. The gender pay gap.
As long as a gap exists between the average earnings of women and the average earnings of men, we will never achieve a truly equal society.
The gender pay gaps shows that society continues to undervalue women’s work throughout all areas of the economy.
To give you a statistic; our data shows that in workplaces dominated by men, women are paid 30 % less than men for the same work.
The continued existence of this gender pay gaps means that these ideas about what women’s work looks like, and how we should value it, are still widespread in the workplace.
These ideas lead me to my second topic. Care.
Care responsibilities should never cause anyone to leave their jobs against their will. But they do.
Let me give you a scenario.
Maria works at a company. She lives with her partner and several small children. Her partner’s company did not offer him generous paternity leave, and Maria’s company did not offer her flexibility in her working schedule. Due to these circumstances, she took maternity leave with each birth of her children.
This stalled her career progression. Her partner now earns significantly more than her. Her elderly father’s health has begun to deteriorate, and there is not adequate support for him to continue living independently.
These circumstances push Maria to make a choice – is it economically feasible for her to continuing working? The answer is no. Maria has no choice but to leave her job.
Though the individual circumstances are different, for 7.7 million women across the EU the end result is the same: caring responsibilities force them to leave their jobs. This is compared to 400,000 men.
From an equality perspective, nobody should be forced to give up their jobs for caring responsibilities, in the first place. But from a gender equality perspective, we need to ask why so many of these people ended up being women.
Because everybody should be entitled to choose how they live their life, whether that be working, caring, or a mix of both. However, more often than not, this is not the reality.
My third point. Covid.
Our data shows that women across the EU were disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and are still feeling the after-effects. Lockdowns lead domestic violence to spike. Sectors such as hospitality and retail, staffed mostly by women, caused huge job losses. And during the pandemic home and work merged into one. Care responsibilities exploded.
Covid recovery plans must factor in these differences. That is why the data collected by institutions such as EIGE is so important. It tells governments where to direct recovery funds, so that the people who need support the most get it.
The good news is EU policymakers are working hard to counter the negative effects of the pandemic. They realise the opportunity that build back plans have to not only redress gender equality setbacks, but to advance it. The Recovery and Resilience facility includes a requirement for EU Member States to show how their national plans will advance gender equality.
This is where the important role played by trade unions come in. Trade unions across the EU pushed hard for including gender perspectives in recovery plans, placing women’s rights and working conditions high on the agenda.
Without the collective bargaining power of trade unions, gender equality could never have improved at the speed that is has. Without trade unions, women would not have maternity rights, men would not have paternity rights, and the gender pay gap would have been much, much wider than it is.
We have made incredible progress in gender equality. But there is still a way to go. Let me tell you about three steps we can take right now.
First step. Pay gap. We must work to close this gap. The EU recently announced a landmark deal on women on boards, meaning more women than ever will get their seat at the decision-making table in companies across the EU. This is an incredible step forward for gender equality, and will further help break gender norms about what women’s work should look like.
Second step. Care. During the pandemic, although the care load for women exploded, men doubled their share of childcare. And our data has shown that when employers offer time-off bonuses to fathers, their use of parental leave increases significantly. A step in this direction will mean structural biases that end up placing care responsibilities on will be further broken down.
Third step. Recovery. Already several member states have submitted recovery plans that factor in the pandemic’s disproportionate effects on women. Spain introduced a reform to compensate parents, primarily mothers, for the cost of a birth and childcare, in order to reduce the gender pension gap. Belgium invested housing for vulnerable persons including women who are victims of violence. Austria promoted re-skilling and up-skilling of workers, offering extra funding to ensure flexible training methods to focus on supporting women.
These incredible plans can serve to inspire all EU member states to continue to include gender perspectives not only in their recovery plans, but in their annual national budgets.
We have already come this far. Now, together we need to take three steps forward for a more gender equal world.