What the EU has done for women - 50 years of EU action


European Commission


Brussels, 7 March 2013

Questions and Answers: What has the EU done for women? 50 years of EU action on Gender Equality for One Continent

On the eve of the International Women's Day, Vice-President Viviane Reding said: "Five decades of European Union action have advanced gender equality on our continent. We have developed laws guaranteeing equal pay for equal work, equality in the workplace and minimum rights to maternity leave. We have made the EU's founding principles a tangible reality in Europeans' everyday lives. This is something we can and should be proud of: gender equality is a European achievement."

What do the Treaties say about gender equality?

The Treaty of Rome in 1957 already included the principle of equal pay for equal work. (Article 119 EEC, then 141 EC, now Article 157 TFEU). The background to this provision was mainly economic: the Member States wanted to eliminate distortions in competition between undertakings established in different Member States. The Member States and in particular France wanted to eliminate distortion of competition between businesses established in different Member States. As some EU countries (for example France) had adopted national provisions on equal pay for men and women much earlier these countries were afraid that a cheap female workforce in other countries (for example from Germany) could put national businesses and the economy at a competitive disadvantage owing to lower labour costs.

In 1976, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) decided in the Defrenne case that Article 119 EEC had not only an economic but also a social aim. This judgment paved the way for modern European gender equality law. It has been followed by an impressive amount of case law.

With the entry into force of the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1999, the promotion of equality between men and women became one of the essential tasks of the European Community (Article 2 EC). Since 1999 the EU has had the competence to take action to combat discrimination based on gender (Article 13(1) EC, now 19(1) TFEU). This Article provided a legal basis for the Directive on the principle of equal treatment between men and women in access to and the supply of goods and services (Directive 2004/113/EC).

EU gender equality is also an integral part of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union which prohibits discrimination on any grounds, including sex, (Article 21) and recognises the right to gender equality in all areas and the necessity of positive action for its promotion (Article 23).

In 2009, the Treaty of Lisbon confirmed once again the importance of gender equality in the European Union. Equality between men and women is included in the common values on which the European Union is founded (Article 2 TEU), which means, for instance, that it will be a yardstick for determining whether a European state can be a candidate for accession. The promotion of equality between men and women is also listed among the tasks of the Union (Article 3(3) TEU), together with the obligation to eliminate inequalities. The Lisbon Treaty thus clearly reiterates the obligation of ensuring gender equality for both the Union and the Member States.

What has the EU done for women in the workforce?

The share of women working has risen from 55% in 1997 to 62% today. Yet the labour market participation of women in the EU is somewhat lower than in other regions of the world (US 65%, Japan: 64%).

As part of the Europe 2020 Strategy, all EU Member States have committed up to raising the employment rate of adults to 75% by 2020. The Commission is following up on this national commitment by addressing every year country-specific recommendations to the Member States, which include the issue of female participation in the labour market.

But it is not enough to get more women into jobs: there is also the question of the quality of these jobs. 34% of women work part time compared to only 8% of men. This is then reflected in women's lower pensions, and their higher risk of poverty.

There are also enormous differences between Member States when it comes to women in employment. The female employment rate is lower than 60% in Malta, Greece, Italy, Hungary, Spain, Romania, Poland, Slovakia and Ireland, while it is above 70% in Germany, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden. Some Member States with the highest female employment rates also display a high share of part-time employment among women (the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark and Luxembourg).

In addition to the Europe 2020 Strategy, the EU supports Member States’ objectives by providing funding for projects under the European Social Fund (ESF), including projects that:

·         Promote women’s access to, and participation in, all levels of the labour market and help close pay gaps and support women’s financial independence;

·         Promote women entrepreneurs and women’s participation in science and technology, in particular in decision-making positions;

·         Combat gender stereotypes in career selection and the professions, and promote lifelong learning; and

·         Reconcile work and family life and offer support for childcare facilities and carers of dependents. Support the integration into employment of immigrant women.

What is the European Union doing on maternity leave?

Under EU legislation (Directive 92/85/EEC), all women in the EU have the right to at least 14 weeks maternity leave and to protection from dismissal for being pregnant. In 2008, the Commission proposed to improve the situation further with longer and better maternity leave (IP/08/1450). The Commission’s proposal – which would increase the minimum entitlement to 18 weeks paid at least at the level of sick pay – is currently under discussion in the Council of the EU and the European Parliament.

Self-employed workers and their partners can enjoy better social protection – including the right to maternity leave for the first time – under new EU legislation on self-employed workers. Member States had until 5 August 2012 to transpose the Directive on self-employed workers and assisting spouses

The law considerably improves the protection of female self-employed workers and assisting spouses or life partners of self-employed workers. For example, they are granted a maternity allowance and a leave of at least 14 weeks, should they choose to take it. At EU level, this is the first time a maternity allowance has been granted to self-employed workers.

The provision on social protection for assisting spouses and life partners (recognised as such in national law) is also a considerable improvement from the 1986 Directive. They have the right to social security coverage (such as pensions) on an equal basis as formal self-employed workers, if the Member State offers such protection to self-employed workers. This helps provide a stronger social safety net and prevent women from falling into poverty.

What is the EU doing to promote Parental leave?

EU law (Directive 2010/18/EU) sets out minimum requirements on parental leave, based on a framework agreement concluded by the European Social Partners (BUSINESSEUROPE, UEAPME, CEEP and ETUC). Under the Directive, male and female workers have individual entitlement to parental leave on the grounds of the birth or adoption of a child, enabling them to take care of the child for at least four months (IP/09/1854). The aim is to help people balance work and family life, while promoting equal opportunities for men and women in the labour market. To encourage also fathers to take parental leave, under the revised directive one of the four months is not transferrable which means that if the father does not claim it, it is lost.

What are the objectives and results of the Strategy for equality between women and men (2010-2015)?

The Strategy for equality between women and men for the period 2010-2015 was adopted in September 2010 and reflects the Commission’s commitment to continue and step up its activities in the field of gender equality (IP/10/1149). The Strategy lists actions to be implemented between 2010 and 2015.

The Strategy outlines six priority areas:

·    equal economic independence for women and men;

·    equal pay for work of equal value;

·    equality in decision-making;

·    dignity, integrity and ending gender violence;

·    promoting gender equality beyond the EU;

·    horizontal issues.

Since the European Commission adopted the Strategy, a number of important results have been achieved. Examples include:

·         Country-specific recommendations in the last two Europe 2020 European Semesters requesting more efforts of Member States to promote gender equality;

·         The annual European Equal Pay Day, held for the first time in March 2011 (IP/13/165);

·         Legislation on the rights of victims of crime, including support for women who have been victims of violence (MEMO/13/119, IP/12/1066);

·         Monitoring of transposition and implementation of EU gender equality legislation in candidate countries.

The most recent achievement is the proposal for a Directive on improving the gender balance among non-executive directors of companies listed on stock exchanges (IP/12/1205).

The European Commission provides a detailed assessment of equality between women and men across all priority areas of the Strategy, as part of the annual progress report on equality between women and men in Europe (IP/12/371).

What is the gender pay gap and what has the EU done about it?

The gender pay gap is the average income difference between male and female employees across the entire economy. The latest figures (IP/13/165) show an average 16.2% gender pay gap in 2010 across the European Union. They confirm a slight downward trend in recent years, when the figure was around 17% or higher. The gap has narrowed in recent years, but much of this was due to falling pay for men in the downturn rather than rising wages for women.

One important factor in the pay gap is the burden of care that women carry. Figures show that the moment men become fathers, they start working longer hours. The same is not the case with women. When they become mothers, they either stop working for longer periods or work part-time – often involuntarily.

Only 64.7% of women with young children in the EU are working, compared to 89.7% of men. Ensuring suitable childcare provision is an essential step towards equal opportunities in employment between women and men. In 2002, at the Barcelona Summit, the European Council set targets for providing childcare to: at least 90% of children between 3 years old and the mandatory school age and at least 33% of children under 3 years of age. Since 2006, the proportion of children cared for under formal childcare arrangements has slightly increased (from 26% to 29% for children up to three years of age, and from 84% to 85% for children from three years of age to mandatory school age). The Commission will soon report again on progress towards the so-called Barcelona targets for providing quality and affordable childcare.

.The Commission wants to support employers in their efforts to tackle the gender pay gap. The "Equality Pays Off" project aims to make companies more aware of the "business case" for gender equality and equal pay. With the challenges of demographic change and increasing skill shortages, the initiative aims to provide companies with better access to the labour force potential of women. It includes training activities, events and tools for companies to address the pay gap.

The Commission will soon report back on implementation of Directive 2006/54/EC on equal treatment between women and men in employment. The Commission’s report will look in particular at the effectiveness of the Directive’s provisions on equal pay.

What has the EU done to promote gender equality on company boards?

In 1984, the Council adopted a recommendation on the promotion of positive action for women (84/635/EEC).

In 1996, the Council adopted a recommendation, upon proposal by the Commission, on the balanced participation of women and men in the decision-making process (96/694/EC).

In 2010, the Commission identified 'equality in decision making' as one of the priorities of the Women's Charter (COM(2010)0078) and of its Strategy for Equality between Women and Men 2010-2015 (COM(2010) 491).

In 2011, Vice-President Viviane Reding launched the 'Women on the Board Pledge for Europe' calling for publicly listed companies in Europe to voluntarily commit to increasing women's presence on their boards to 30% by 2015 and 40% by 2020. A year later, only 24 companies had signed the pledge.

In March 2012, the Commission took stock of the situation and found only an average improvement of just 0.6 percentage points over the past years. At this slow rate of progress it would take around 40 years before companies would naturally reach gender balanced representation in boards.

The European Parliament called for legislation in its resolutions of 6 July 2011 and 13 March 2012 on equality between women and men in business leadership in the European Union.

Between 5 March and 28 May 2012, the Commission held a public consultation inviting the public – individual businesses, social partners, interested NGOs and citizens – to comment on what kind of measures the EU should take to tackle the lack of gender diversity in boardrooms. The results have fed into the proposal presented by the European Commission in November 2012.

In November 2012, the Commission proposed a Directive setting a 40% objective of the under-represented sex in non-executive board-member positions in publicly listed companies, with the exception of small and medium enterprises (IP/12/1205 and MEMO/12/860). Companies which have a lower share (less than 40%) of the under-represented sex among the non-executive directors will be required to make appointments to those positions on the basis of a comparative analysis of the qualifications of each candidate, by applying clear, gender-neutral and unambiguous criteria. Given equal qualification, priority shall be given to the under-represented sex. The objective of attaining at least 40% membership of the under-represented sex for the non-executive positions should thus be met by 2020 while public undertakings – over which public authorities exercise a dominant influence – will have two years less, until 2018.

Although the proposal is not yet law, it is already having an effect. The share of women on boards in publicly listed companies is on the rise (see IP/13/51): women represented on average 15.8% of board room members in October 2012, up from 11.8% two years earlier. The new figure represents a 2.2 percentage point increase as compared to October 2011 and is the highest year on year change yet recorded. An increase in the share of women on boards has been recorded in all but four EU countries.

What has the EU done for victims of domestic violence?

Victims of violence, in particular domestic violence, will be able to count on EU-wide protection. On 19 February, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers reached a political agreement on a proposal by the European Commission for an EU-wide protection order. The agreement means women who have suffered domestic violence will be able to rely on a restraining order obtained in their home country wherever they are in the EU. Such protection is in particular vital for many women in Europe: around one in five have suffered physical violence at least once in their life, according to surveys. The draft regulation will now pass to the European Parliament and the Council to be formally finalised (MEMO/13/119)

The Commission proposed the Regulation on mutual recognition of protection measures in civil matters as part of a package of measures to improve victims’ rights (see IP/11/585 and MEMO/11/310). The Victims Directive – which sets out minimum rights for crime victims wherever they are in the EU – is already in the European statute book (IP/12/1200). The new EU victims' directive will make sure that victims of domestic violence get the specialised support and attention they need.

Both instruments will also complement the European Protection Order of 13 December 2011, which ensures free circulation of criminal law protection measures throughout Europe. The agreement on the European Civil Protection Order is a major step towards closing protection gaps for victims of domestic violence who want to exercise their right to free movement in the EU.

Is the EU contributing financially to combat violence against women?

Since its establishment in 1997, the Daphne programme has funded more than 750 projects, half of which aim to support women who are victims of violence or to find ways to prevent violence. An important focus of these actions has always been prevention of violence, victim support (such as women's shelters run by NGOs), training of professionals and awareness-raising.

Although the Daphne name is not maintained as such for the period after 2013, funding will continue to be targeted at supporting women who are victims of violence. Funding will also be available for prevention of such violence. The fund for the Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme covering the current Daphne priorities will be supplemented by funds under the proposed Justice Programme funding activities in the area of victims' rights.

Declaration 19 annexed to the Lisbon Treaty states that Member States should take all necessary steps to tackle domestic violence and help protect victims.

What is the EU doing to end female genital mutilation?

Ending this form of violence is among the priorities of the European Commission's efforts to combat violence against women (see MEMO/13/67).

On 14 June 2012, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on ending female genital mutilation by a large majority (564 votes in favour, 0 against, 2 abstentions).

Vice-President Reding hosted a roundtable discussion on female genital mutilation on 6 March 2013.

In parallel, the Commission launched a public consultation calling for views on how best to develop measures at EU level to fight female genital mutilation. The consultation will run until 30 May 2013. The Commission has also announced EUR 3.7 million in funding to raise awareness of violence against women in the EU’s Member States and a further EUR 11.4 million for NGOs and others working with victims (see IP/13/189 and the Zero Tolerance campaign available on Facebook; Twitter Hashtag: #zeroFGM )

The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) released a new report into female genital mutilation in the EU in February 2013, following a request by Vice-President Reding. The report finds that FGM is by nature a global, transnational phenomenon. While there is no hard evidence of FGM being practised in the EU, thousands of women and girls living in the EU have been subjected to the practice either before moving to the EU or while travelling outside the EU.

The report finds that there are victims, or potential victims, in at least 13 EU countries: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Spain, Finland, France, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden and the UK. However, it also highlights the need for rigorous data as a basis for tackling the complex scope of the problem.