In a meeting with AFCO during Gender Equality Week at European Parliament in Brussels on 26 October 2022, Director Carlien Scheele addressed how changes to the EU Treaties can help achieve more gender equality in the EU.

Dear Chair, Members of the Parliament, colleagues,

When Ursula von der Leyen said that “the moment has arrived for a European Convention”  to reform EU treaties by enshrining “solidarity between generations in our Treaties” in her State of the Union address in September, I thought to myself, this is a major opportunity for the European Union to take leaps forwards to secure and realise the rights of women in all their diversity.  

That being said, the EU Strategic Foresight paints a different picture for our future. One that demands urgent attention. Because according to the megatrends, we could be facing further gender gaps. Some EU countries have recently introduced laws, policies and practices which limit women’s sexual and reproductive rights. And we are also up against ongoing threats in the form of hate speech, smear campaigns and even violence against people and organisations defending women’s rights.

The effect of these situations is indeed reflected and quantified in EIGE’s latest Gender Equality Index score – which was released on Monday. The EU’s overall score on gender equality this year sits at 68.6 points – 1 refers to complete gender inequality and 100 means full gender equality. Our score indicates that the progress towards reaching gender equality in the EU has stalled. However, the area of power – which looks at women and men in decision-making positions – is driving progress forward. Because more women have a seat at the table – so to speak. Had it not been for this boost, the Index score would have fallen further due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic – which has impacted the gains since 2010. For the first time in a decade, gender inequalities in employment and the duration of the working life, education, health status and access to health services have grown. What remains constant are the gender gaps in the risk of poverty and the distribution of income between women and men – add the Russian war in Ukraine into the mix, and the risks only exacerbate.

Gender equality is important for anyone and everyone. Because according to the 2017 Special Eurobarometer, 91% of people believe promoting gender equality is a pre-requisite for a fair and democratic society. Another 87% believe promoting gender equality is important for companies and for the economy and 84% value gender equality on a personal level.

Therefore, during the Conference on the Future of Europe process, I was counting on gender equality to come in strong. While gender equality was addressed in several instances, there is always room for further analysis to expand our field of vision.

But before we embark into the future, we need to step back in time for a moment.

The first step towards gender equality in the EU was connected to economic gains. The introduction of the principle of equal pay for female and male workers in the Treaty of Rome in 1957 was a means to avoid social dumping in market sectors which heavily relied on cheaper female labour at the time.

One of the significant offshoots to this economic benefit, was drawing much needed attention to the unequal status of women within society. It helped to broaden the approach to gender equality between women and men across employment, occupation, and social security.

In the early 1990s the EU’s approach to gender equality remained anchored to the main goal of ensuring equal treatment between women and men in employment and was essentially intended as a matter of social policy. Then the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam changed things. It expressly framed the equality between women and men as one of the key objectives and activities of the European Community - and included the concept of gender mainstreaming, calling for the integration of a gender perspective by both EU institutions and the Member States in all areas of EU policy. 

Several treaty amendments followed. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which acquired a legally binding status with the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon in December 2009, contains several relevant provisions for our discussion today. By reaffirming equality and non-discrimination as fundamental rights and serving as a privileged source of interpretation of EU secondary law in this area, the EU charter was perceived by many as a significant contribution to expanding and strengthening the EU’s approach to gender equality.

Over time, much has been done to clarify and improve the legal framework in the EU, but it can always be improved with further scrutiny into the implementation and monitoring process – so that we are aware of its impact on the ground. The legal framework must be in sync with reality.

One may argue that there is enough in the Treaties to ensure non-discrimination and equal treatment of women and men across the EU.  Unfortunately, EIGE’s analysis shows that governments’ commitments to gender mainstreaming have decreased overall since 2012[1].

But there are examples in some EU Member State, where Constitutions go the extra mile.

For example, we can look to Member States such as Austria where gender budgeting is a firm requirement embedded in their Constitution. Gender Budgeting is an essential instrument for establishing gender mainstreaming within government policies and assigning clear responsibilities, making governments accountable for their gender policy commitments. We can also look to Slovenia, where the Constitution provides for measures for equal opportunities between women and men in standing for elections in the case of legislated quotas and the freedom of choice in childbearing.

It is in the EU’s interest to lead by example – because success stories from one Member State have the magnetic effect of encouraging others to follow.  

It all starts by taking steps forward.

At EIGE, we have been asking European decision-makers, opinion leaders, Ministers in several EU Member States to define about their #3StepsForward to make gender equality an inherent part of our economies and societies – rather than simply an afterthought.  

As to your discussions today, I encourage you to define what #3StepsForward could look like. In other words: what are the steps that can be taken to ensure the EU remains on a steadfast path towards gender equality and avoid the risk of undoing all the hard-fought gains so far. Thank you.


[1] Additional information: An increase in the strength of commitment has occurred in five Member States (BG, EL, LV, PT, SE) but decreased, in eight Member States (BE, CY, CZ, LT, LU, MT, PL, SK).