Persistent barriers: The situation of women in the EU

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The European Women’s Lobby is one of a number of groups attempting to move women’s interests into a more central position in the political agenda of the European Union. Below is the Lobby’s assessment of the situation at the turn of the century.

Economic independence is key to real equality for women and men. Throughout Europe, women’s participation in the labour market has been growing since the 1950s, but the growth is slowing down and large gender gaps within the labour market remain significant in all EU countries.

The employment rate of women in the EU in 1998 is 51.2%, which is some 20 percent below men’s employment rate, even though the figures differs a lot between Member States. In general, fiscal, educational, cultural and social barriers hinder the access of women of all age groups to the labour market and their progression within it.

Women are often employed in ‘flexible’ employment, on temporary contracts, or in low-paid jobs which are often in female dominated sectors. The career paths of women are therefore unstable and it is difficult to acquire work experience. This also leads very often to a low level of social protection and precarious living conditions.

The labour market as well as the education and training patterns are heavily gender segregated. Although in some EU countries, women and young women in particular, have conquered typical ‘male’ occupations, the overall situation has not changed much. Young women are over-represented in typical female occupations such as hairdressers and secretarial workers and still under-represented in managerial and professional occupations. Women and men are also unequally represented in sectors, such as the growing sector of information and communications technology (ICT). Education and training policies especially dedicated to young women are needed in order to break these patterns.

Many more women than men make career breaks in order to care for their children. For some people, part-time work constitutes a way to combine employment with responsibilities for children. However, the fact that almost all part-time workers are women, show that there is a severe unequal sharing of responsibilities for the children. Career breaks raise the problem of training and re-organisation of work throughout the life cycle

This unequal situation hinders an increased participation of women in the labour market, gives rise to discrimination of women already in the labour market, and will in most cases have severe effects on women’s security in terms of entitlement and the levels of social protection. This shows how social policy, taxation systems; employment policy and provisions of care are inseparable. Nor is it recognised that men’s ‘freedom’ from care responsibilities is a decisive factor, which promotes their levels of income and career development.

While part-time work may sometimes provide a sufficient income while being in the labour force, pension and social security rights are oftentimes related to the income and/or length of employment. Part-time work is also not conducive to career development. Another problematic, and possibly more subtle point with part-time work as a solution for ‘reconciling work and family life’ is the fact that it is understood as something that mostly concerns women. Women continue to be seen as the ones who should carry the main responsibility for the family and household. Such a view limits women’s independence and choices in the labour market and risks cementing the unequal sharing of family responsibilities between women and men. Only through sufficient provision of affordable childcare women and men can be given a de facto choice how to ‘reconcile their working and family responsibilities’.

There is also a gender gap in terms of pay. Data of 1995 shows that, across the EU as a whole, women are paid on average 73% of men’s hourly wages for the same work. However, the gender pay gap seems to be less flagrant in EU countries such as Sweden (women’s wages are 17% lower) and Denmark (21%), and deeper in the United Kingdom (24%) and Greece (32%). The most recent OECD Employment Outlook revealed that, on average, part-time hourly earning are between 55% and 90% of full-time hourly earning depending on the country and sector.

Furthermore, the pay gap tends to be much larger in the private sector than in the public sector. It has to be noted as well, that in sectors, which are traditionally dominated by women employees (such as care service work), are less paid than sectors dominated by men. It seems however that the situation for young women - in particular those with higher education - is better than for older women. However, even in the age group of 25-29, women’s earnings are only 86% of men’s.

Marginalised groups of women face even greater difficulties in the labour market. Migrant and ethnic minority women present in many cases low levels of training and education that confine them to work in atypical sectors and low status jobs. In many cases their lack of an independent legal status forces them to work in the informal economy. The second or third generation of young women who are professionally qualified face discrimination at many stages but particularly at the selection-for-interview stage.

Lesbians can be discriminated at hiring, dismissal, promotion, training, working conditions etc. and they often do not have a legal basis to fight this injustice. In some ‘sensitive’ sectors homosexuality is seen as security risk which excludes lesbians from diplomatic and military service or education.