EIGE's Director Carlien Scheele delivered this speech at a ministerial conference on the European Child Guarantee, organised by the French presidency of the EU 2022 on 4 March 2022. 

When we speak about early childhood, we need to start by looking at the parents and guardians. What choices do they make? How do current laws enable them to take care of children raised in a family while leading fulfilling lives outside the home, and how do they make it tricky? What is the impact of gender stereotypes? And how does all this trickle down to little girls and little boys?

To answer those questions, I will give you a snapshot of the situation in the European Union.

First, let me start with parental leave.

This is a right that is still much more likely to be taken up by mothers, than it is by fathers.

According to one European Commission estimate, only about 10 % of fathers in the EU use their right for parental leave. Take up varies greatly across the EU, with 44 % of fathers using this right in Sweden, to just 0.02 % of fathers using it in Greece.

This is despite the fact that there are actually more fathers than mothers eligible for parental leave. That’s because there are more men than women in employment, which is often a prerequisite for parental leave.

These figures show that, in the early years when it all begins, mothers are still spending much more time with their children than fathers are.

I don’t need to tell you that this pattern continues as children get older, with women being less likely to have a job, more likely to work part-time and in less senior position. The fact that having children comes with a drop in earnings for women, which increases with the birth of each child, shows the impact of this unpaid care work on women’s lives. 

The best way to neutralise these inequalities is through quality, affordable and universal childcare and educational services.

Countries in which more children are being taken care of by professional carers as opposed to in the home, have more women in the workforce, and higher levels of gender equality overall. 

That is why, 20 years ago, the European Union introduced the so-called Barcelona targets, which set goals for the share of children across the EU who should be in formal childcare by a certain age.

The right to professional education in the early years belongs to children, as well as to parents. This has been stressed in the European Pillar of Social Rights, and now in the Child Guarantee. 

Quality early care can also help close gaps between the opportunities available to different children because of their background. That is why EU policies to integrate people with a migrant or Roma background highlight quality early education as critical for equality.

Yet this is a right that many children and parents are still unable to exercise, because investing in professional care services has not been a priority for many Member States.

That is why we at the European Institute for Gender Equality are now working with the European Commission to make the Barcelona targets go further, to also focus on the quality of care and education being provided.

We also think the targets should take into account the working conditions in this sector, which is almost entirely made up of women. Even though they have the vital work of shaping our children’s early education, they are some of the lowest paid people in the EU.

Improving conditions in this sector would not only improve the quality for children, I dare say it would bring in more men. As we see in later years education, men are willing to work in sectors dominated by women, as long as the pay and prestige are sufficient. 

Bringing more men into early years care would also create more role models for young girls and boys, who would see that looking after children is an activity for men, as well as for women.

I am sure all of us here support getting more women, and especially more mothers into the workforce, into jobs that provide the same financial independence as those held by men.

We support it because gender equality is one of our values, and because it makes economic sense: my Institute has calculated that improving gender equality could add over 3 trillion euros to the EU’s GDP by 2050.

But getting more mothers into the workforce also creates a virtuous cycle, where daughters who had a working mother are more likely to be in work themselves, to hold a supervisory position and to earn higher salaries than daughters whose mothers stayed home full time. 

Perhaps even more interestingly, sons whose mothers were in paid employment spend more time caring for their family members, while daughters whose mothers worked spend less time on housework.

It would seem that the examples set in childhood leave their mark well into adulthood.

This is why it is important to be vigilant about flexible forms of work, including telework.

In theory, flexible working gives women and men the opportunity to balance their job with their private life, including with childcare.

Yet in practice we have seen women using these kinds of arrangements to try and make their care responsibilities fit around their job, while men have used them to increase their working hours.

During the pandemic, when so many of us were teleworking with children at home, both mothers and fathers increased the amount of time they spent caring for their children.

But women still did much, much more.

As telework looks set to stay, we must be careful not to allow telework to become the domain of mothers trying to juggle their jobs with childcare in the home, while fathers work peacefully in the office.

This, quite simply, will not work, and would entrench many of the inequalities we already see in the workplace.

It would also send a visible signal to the daughters and sons watching their mothers at their desks at home, while fathers go off to the office.

And children are sensitive to gender roles.

Children as young as four are able to divide activities and objects into what they believe is for girl and what is for boys.  

This is hardly surprising. Businesses realised they could sell more stuff if little girls and little boys were told they couldn’t play with the same toys.

And I’m afraid I have some bad news for parents of young children with us today. Even when parents claim that gender stereotypes have no place in their home, children see through them.  

One study showed that while 64 % of parents said they would buy their son a doll, only 9 % of little boys thought their parents would approve of them playing with a toy usually associated with girls.

This telling figure is also another example of how we value things associate with boys, more than we value those associated with girls.  

There are also some countries the EU where gender stereotypes about the role of women and men in society are actually deepening. The rise of initiatives hostile to gender equality no doubt have a part to play in this.

That is why I am glad the European Commission will soon roll out a campaign to counter gender stereotypes, to which we at the gender equality Institute have also contributed.

The early years of a child’s life are well and truly where it all begins. Providing children with a guarantee of quality care and education, as well as an environment free from restrictive stereotypes, is a goal we are proud to help EU countries work towards. 

Thank you.

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Youth and gender equality