EIGE's Director Carlien Scheele delivered this speech at Ministers' Round Table on Equality forum, which was a part of the conference Women's economic empowerment: key to gender equality hosted by the French European Union Council Presidency on 31 January 2022.

Good morning dear ministers and dear colleagues,

As you know, the European Parliament just elected its third female president. To mark this occasion, I would like to start my address to you today with some words from the first ever woman to lead the European Parliament, who said: 

“Ma revendication en tant que femme c'est que ma différence soit prise en compte, que je ne sois pas contrainte de m'adapter au modèle masculin.”

This was of course the great Simone Veil, French politician and magistrate, who asked that, as a woman, her differences would be taken into account, so that she would not be forced to adapt to a male model. 

I start with these words because they are at the core of what I want to speak about today.

Our economies have for centuries been moulded according to a male model. While women have always worked, it has until quite recently only been for free in the home, or in jobs without much power.

So it is perhaps little surprise that we are still trying to edit out sexism, discrimination and inequality in our labour markets. Inserting women into the existing system hasn’t quite worked.

Women are still paid less. They are in a minority in positions of power, but in a majority of those caring for children and older people. They are left out of entire sectors of the economy, which, by the way, are often some of the best paid and highly respected ones – I will touch on this later in my speech.

I am sure that these inequalities are not news to anyone here today. The gender pay gap, low numbers of women in engineering and computer science, European Council meetings being made up almost entirely of men…these realities have been around for so long, many people barely notice them anymore.

But the Covid pandemic suddenly made many of these changes very noticeable indeed.

On the frontlines of the pandemic, we had large numbers of women, who make up about three quarters of the health workforce in the EU.

Yet those taking decisions about how to respond to the pandemic were mainly men. In the EU, the majority of government ministers are men. In some countries, the figure is over 90 %.  

This means that decision such as whether to close schools and childcare services were frequently being made without a healthy share of women’s voices being heard.      

While all parents were affected by these decisions, it was those who do the lion’s share of childcare that were the most affected.

Our research shows that during the pandemic, women have been doing about 36 hours of unpaid care work a week. That’s almost 2,000 hours a year, which, to put it into context, is more or less what you give to a full-time job over the course of a year. 

This unpaid care work that is essential to our economies. The children being fed, educated and entertained will be future taxpayers, financing many of our pensions.

No wonder then, that the value of unpaid care work has been estimated to be around 9 trillion euros each year globally.

As you can imagine, all these hours of unpaid care work can eat into the time you have for a job that pays.

And, indeed, what we are seeing is that there are less women coming back into the labour market as we start to recover from the pandemic.  

There are some other worrying developments.

In 2021, for the first time in 17 years, the number of economically inactive women increased. These are the women are not in paid work, nor looking for it. Before Covid, this figure had been dropping year on year in the EU.

But the pandemic is not just making women vanish from the labour market, it is highlighting how often the current structure just doesn’t work for them.

Let’s look at part-time work. In the EU, women make up about three quarters of part-time workers. They choose this type of work in order to be able to do it alongside their unpaid work in the home, such as picking up their daughter or son when school finishes at three o’ clock. 

In the Netherlands, where I come from, 60 % of women do this type of work.

Yet during the Covid crisis, these workers were rarely eligible for government support like unemployment or sickness benefit.

This is despite the fact that many of these workers are on part-time contracts so that they can do their unpaid work, which brings value to the economy.

Hardly fair, is it?

And while I am on the subject of contracts, let me speak about the type of work that sometimes fails to provide the basic elements of social protection we should expect.

We have today released a report looking at how platform work, such as ride hailing and food delivery, and artificial intelligence are transforming our economies, and what this means for gender equality.

Our findings show that the future is well and truly in our hands.

Platform work is growing, and artificial intelligence is increasingly becoming part of our day-to-day lives.

Already, 10 % of the EU population has done work via platforms such as Uber.

We interviewed some 5,000 of these workers to better understand their motivations, and the challenges they face.

We found out that they are mainly young, highly educated, and taking care of children – in particular if they are women.

Indeed, more than a third of women doing platform work told us they do it because they can combine these jobs with family commitments and housework.

Yet these kinds of jobs rarely provide a formal employment contract, which means their flexibility is limited practice. Many work at night, at the weekend, and at hours they cannot choose.

Like others in non-standard forms of employment, they were rarely eligible for government support during the Covid crisis.

Platform workers can also be observed using time-tracking software, which deducts ‘low productivity time’ from pay. This kind of software poses a particular threat to those caring for small children.

Anyone who has had young children can confirm: they cry, they get sick, they need to be taken out of school -- they do not necessarily respect your need to complete a task as quickly as possible.

I hope that EU Member States will welcome the European Commission’s new proposal for legislation to improve the working conditions of platform workers, which would help bring more of them into formal employment. This status would bring many more rights, such as limits to working time, a minimum wage, and paid leave.  

If we do it right, there is much potential in these new elements of the labour market.

For example, we found that in online platform work, there is a higher share of men doing jobs usually done by women than there is in the traditional labour market. This includes housework, childcare, and data entry. 

Having more men being paid to take care of children and people’s homes can help chip away at stereotypes about women’s and men’s work, and of how much it is valued.

Let me just take a moment here to reflect on the importance of formalising this type of work, and making it into a recognisable part of our labour market.  

In Europe, we are an ageing population. Over the coming years, more and more of us will need care and support in the home. 

Yet this type of work has usually been done by women, usually by women with a migrant background, often outside the formal labour market, for low pay and in poor conditions. Ensuring this work is a formal part of our economies would hopefully bring more recognition of its importance, and more respect – both when it’s somebody’s job, and when it’s done purely out of love.  

Before I close, I will touch on another part of the economy of the future, which it is also in our hands to shape so that it works for both women and men. 

Artificial intelligence is increasingly affecting our day-to-day lives. Yet just 16 % of those working on artificial intelligence in the EU and the UK are women.

I’ll highlight two reasons why this is concerning.

First, it means that our modern reality is being shaped exclusively by the experiences of men. And as we’ve seen, those kinds of systems don’t tend to work so well for women.

Second, it means that women are missing out on well-paid and respected jobs in a growing industry. As I mentioned earlier, professional sectors dominated by men have long had some of the best conditions in the labour market. 

This is why I am happy the European Commission is taking action with its proposed Artificial Intelligence Act, which shows promise when it comes to minimising the risk of bias and discrimination in AI.

I also welcome the Commission’s commitment to train more women and people from diverse backgrounds to become AI professionals. Here I’d like to highlight the good work being done by the people behind initiatives such as ‘Women in AI’, who are helping propel more women into this sector, and who  we must listen to and support as much as possible.

The economy of the future doesn’t need to be scary. In the EU, we have some of the highest standard when it comes to gender equality and labour rights.

Indeed, with artificial intelligence, there may be a point where the type of work that’s best paid and most respected in our wold today, such as fixing broken bones or building computers, will be completely outsourced to machines. 

In this economy of the future, it would be the kind of interpersonal care work that’s mainly done by women at the moment, which would be what’s valued in the labour market.

If we do it well, if we learn from all the data we have gathered over all these years, then we could build an economy that isn’t male or female, but that works for us all. 

Thank you.   

Further reading

Report: Artificial intelligence, platform work and gender equality

Policy brief: Artificial intelligence, platform work and gender equality

Press release: Robots and ride hailing: women and men face different risks from economy of the future