Gender Equality: Who cares, why care?

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10 Jun 2015

This blog was originally published in edited form on the CIPD People Management website

Duncan BrownDuncan Brown

I was in Brussels in April at an excellent EU policy forum on gender equality. Five years ago the Commission published its strategy on the issue and the forum was designed to review progress and input into the next five-year plan.

Another boring meeting of EU bureaucrats and policy wonks it was not, with lively participation and debate amongst the 250 delegates, ‘discussion islands’ on 35 possible topics for EU policy intervention, live cartooning and action planning.

EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, Vera Jourova, kicked the meeting off and didn’t pull any punches: while progress had been made on women’s position in Europe, it is 'unfinished business', with the recession derailing and delaying significant moves forward as 'the realities are too often ignored or denied – the waste of female talent on the labour market and the unacceptable high levels of violence against women'. While the plateaued 17.5 per cent average gender pay gap across the EU was depressingly familiar, the data that a third of women across Europe have experienced physical or sexual violence was the scariest stat for me.

The latest annual report on progress from Jourova’s department finds that at the current rate of change, it will take almost 30 years to reach the EU’s target of 75 per cent of women in employment; over 70 years to make equal pay a reality; over 20 years to achieve gender balance on the boards of Europe’s largest publicly-listed companies; and almost 40 years to ensure that housework is equally shared between women and men. While the UK scores well on labour market participation, we have one of worst total earnings gaps (46 per cent compared to the EU average of 37 per cent) with too many women in low-paid, low-hours, low-skills jobs.

According to former member of the Commission Emma Bonino, it is deplorable that women in 2015 Europe are still having to choose between their 'bosses and babies'.

The drive to mainstream equality once again into the Union’s 2020 economic plan and also to pressurise member states to make more progress was supported wholeheartedly at the forum, and also apparently by the EU population more widely. A special Eurobarometer survey on gender equality suggests that three quarters of Europeans (76 per cent) think that tackling inequality between men and women should be an EU priority. Europeans are most likely to say that 'violence against women' is the gender inequality issue that should be dealt with the most urgently, followed by 'women being paid less than men for the same work'.

And that drive is already taking effect. There is a much stronger desire to set clearer targets for member states, improve measures, monitor delivery of improvement and hold states accountable, as well as increasing EU and state budgets in this area. The Commission published a report last year showing that progress on equal pay was being hindered by lack of transparency. It wrote to member states requiring that they report on gender pay disclosure by the end of 2015.

Hence the Liberal Democrats managed to successfully insert a new requirement on gender pay gap reporting for UK companies into the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill just before the end of the last parliament. Equal pay auditing and publishing the results has been compulsory in Austria since 2013.

The Commission is also progressing a draft directive on female board participation – the current average in large European companies is 20 per cent. Targeting and setting quotas for women at senior levels is now spreading rapidly round Europe. In Finland the requirement is 40 per cent on Boards and Germany recently introduced a 30 per cent minimum on large company supervisory boards from 2016.

The Commission estimates that the gains from full convergence in employment between women and men across the EU would be equivalent to 12.4 per cent of GDP. Yet the absence amongst the politicians and officials, international organisations, social partners and academics at the EU forum, perhaps not surprisingly of UKIP, but also British government officials, employers and HR leaders raised some interesting questions about where their priorities lie.

Europe received surprisingly little coverage in our mind-numbing election campaign but according to Labour's acting leader Harriet Harman, and agreeing with most at the EU Forum, 'For all the progress women have made in their lives I think we have seen things slipping back under this last government and actually we need to back women up in making progress in their lives.'

If the conclusions of this EU Forum are anything to go by, we can expect more action ahead and already have seen the new Conservative government confirm measures on extended free childcare. The Commission’s consultation on gender equality is now open and you can input your views and ideas at: