The European Framework Against Discrimination: is gender equality still a mirage?

by Cristina Tecovich

The concept of equality between women and men has been one of the main values of the European Community, even when there was still no talk of a fully-fledged Union in the way Maastricht conceived it. As the President of the European Commission – Ursula von der Leyen – admitted:

Gender equality is a core principle of the European Union, but it is not yet a reality”.

What the following paragraphs will convey is the image of an extremely ambiguous situation: a rich institutional framework that supports all kinds of aspects regarding the principle of gender equality and the prohibition of any kind of discrimination based on gender, on one side; and a reality in which many women and girls still face struggles and discrimination daily, on the other one.

The issue on the present matter is crystal-clear: why do we still find ourselves in front of these discrepancies in which the noticeable progress in the institutional framework isn’t implemented effectively?

We are faced with a scenario in which women still earn 16% less than man per hour; they represent only 7.5% of board chairs and 7.7% of CEOs in the EU’s largest companies; and where 75% of unpaid work (mainly of care and domestic, or the so-called invisible work) is done by women.

Discrimination faced by women is reflected in the data on violence too: 33% of EU women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence, while 55% declared to have been sexually harassed. And the list could go on.

The question we should answer is: is there a way in which both citizens and their representatives can eradicate gender inequalities and discrimination (or at least try to)?

A little history: gender equality in the EU treaties

The first reference on this topic can be found on the article 119 of the Treaty of Rome, with the particular focus on the job market and the application of the principle of equal pay.

Honestly – kind of constrained, yet reasonable considering that the Treaty brought about the establishment of the European Economic Community.

It was signed in 1957 and to this day – so more than 65 years later – the labor market is one of the fields in which a huge discrimination persists: women find it more difficult both to enter the market and to earn a fair remuneration compared to their male colleagues.

Back to the main point, a consistent number of interventions (both regulatory and political) has been implemented at the European level and the principle of gender equality is part of all the major EU Treaties: it was included into the European Social Charter (1961) and the following revised Charter (1996) and into the Social Protocol of the Maastricht Treaty (1992).

Moreover, the Amsterdam Treaty (1997) establishes that the Community “aims to cancel inequalities, as well as promoting equality between men and women” (art. 3) and adds a reference to the principle of non-discrimination based on gender, race or ethnicity, religion, or disability (art. 13). Both latter articles were echoed also into the Charter of fundamental rights of the European Union (2001) respectively in Articles 23 and 21. It also recognized the right to paid maternity leave.

Finally, the Lisbon Treaty (2007) reinforced the previous framework by reiterating what was already established by the Charter but making them legally binding for the member states.

New approaches and the latest initiatives

Alongside the strengthening of the normative framework, starting from the Nineties a revolutionary perspective on the matter of gender equality has been introduced: the so-called gender mainstreaming. It regards the process of policymaking requiring policy makers and all the actors involved in the political process must take a discerning look on the gender perspective and include it in every policy area. In other words, the principle of gender equality must be implemented in all EU policies and initiatives.

The latter must take into consideration also the intersectionality that might occur among several kinds of discrimination. Indeed, the same woman could be facing discrimination based on the combination of different personal characteristics other than gender (religion or ethnicity for instance).

The intersectional approach is meant to reflect the complexity of today’s society. This comes to surface especially from the Gender Equality Index that clearly shows how gender is manifested in combination with other features such as age, disability, and socio-economical background – among others. The research is conducted by the European Institute for Gender Equality which – as the only autonomous body on this matter – contributes to the promotion of gender equality in the EU mostly through the close coordination with the main European institutions.

Moreover, in March 2020 the European Commission – with the full support of its president – presented the Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 to reach the goal of a Union in which “women and men, girls and boys, in all their diversity, are free to pursue their chosen path in life; they have equal opportunities to thrive in society and the economy; and they can lead and equally participate in our economy and society”.

One of the most recent proposals deals with pay transparency and it aims to cancel the pay gap between women and men that still persists among the member states: the companies with at least 50 employees should be required to make public the data on wages. A few days ago, on the 5th of April, the European Parliament declared it was “ready to open negotiations with EU governments about the directive on pay transparency”.

This is just an example: the reality is much more complex due to the different levels of engagement in the field of gender equality in the EU institution, underlining each time how it represents a primary goal of the Union – as it was previously pointed out.

The role of the EU citizens

It is undeniable that the EU has made a significant progress in the past years – especially if we look at it in comparison to the first steps taken with the Treaty of Rome – and it is still working to reach the goal of a Union of Equality. Using both hard and soft law instruments, numerous initiatives were taken – although inequality and discrimination against women are still present.

One of the many reasons behind them is the presence of harmful social norms and stereotypes that are still too widespread and rooted in nowadays’ society. As a matter of fact, the data from the 2017 European Value Survey shows clearly how a considerable percentage of EU citizens is still bound to the idea in which the man is the breadwinner, while the woman has to take care of the household and the family. And stereotypes are used to justify this outdated view.

What stands out from our country is embarrassing: among others, almost 40% of people strongly agreed that a man’s job was to earn money while a woman’s one was to look after the family and home and almost 60% believed that women’s main desires were home and kids. In this picture, education plays a big role: activities to raise awareness and communication campaigns are much needed – and the EU has already started in the field.

But I believe that the final responsibility regards all of us as EU citizens. It is our duty to recognize there is a problem and start working on improving the here and now to fight for equality and women’s empowerment, especially by the exercise of our democratic power in our day-to-day life.