It’s Our Economy Too: Gender Equality Is Not A Luxury To Be Abandoned In Times Of Crisis

By Charlotte O’Brien

In spite of high profile commitments, progress on gender equality has stalled in the EU. Dr Charlotte O’Brien argues that male-dominated institutions have responded to the economic crisis with measures that deepen gender gaps. Equality is treated as a luxury item to be cut from the budget, and economic policy is skewed, making inequality persistent and self-perpetuating.  

gender-featuredIf rhetoric alone could effect change, the fight against gender inequality in the EU would be long won. Gender equality was one of the ‘founding values’ of the Union, evident in the commitment to equal pay for work of equal value back in 1957.1 It is codified as a central principle in the existing treaties – in “all its activities”, we are told, “the Union shall aim to eliminate inequalities, and to promote equality, between men and women”.2 And it is enshrined as a “fundamental right” in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, according to which equality “between men and women must be ensured in all areas”.3 It has been the subject of a stream of policies, strategies and goals throughout the life of the Union. But this is not enough. Legislative and judicial changes have been piecemeal – and in many cases, long overdue. And the figures tell a dispiriting story of stubborn, deep-rooted inequality – an underlying, chronic condition, constantly blighting the life of the EU body politic, and flaring up particularly aggressively in times of stress or crisis.

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The chronic condition of gender inequality

The pay gap is persistent and stark. The unadjusted average pay gap across the EU is 16.3%, but if adjusted to reflect monthly earnings rather than hourly earnings, so reflecting the greater proportion of women in part-time work, is 20%.4 This increases further if we look at annual earnings, which partly account for the greater likelihood of ‘interruptions’ to work, to a 41% overall pay gap.5 The 2015 Gender equality index report also indicated a significant gender gap when it comes to time – a 17% gap in engagement in childcare and education of children, and a staggering 53% gap between women’s and men’s engagement with housework activities. In 2010, 77 % of women workers and 24 % of men workers spent 1 hour or more on domestic activities daily in the EU-28. The effects of these disproportionate responsibilities are two-fold – they reduce time available for paid work, and mean that combining paid and unpaid hours, women’s working hours are significantly longer than men’s.6

The Secretary General of the European Women’s Lobby concluded last year that progress on gender equality had stagnated since 2005.7 And yet, days after that report, the Commission pulled the plug on a major proposal to provide women on maternity leave with 20 weeks full pay – it seems because Member States considered it too costly.8 But strong maternity policies help keep women in better jobs. There has been an emphasis across the EU upon employment activation policies in which “any job rather than a good job is now the goal of policymakers concerned with raising the female employment rate.”9 A significantly greater proportion of women than men are in part-time work (in 2012 it was 32.1% compared to 8.4%).10 This leads to lower earnings, lower potential pensions, and fewer career advancement opportunities, while part-time work is also more likely to be precarious,11 placing women’s jobs at greater risk. The Commission recently released a study on the gender pension gap showing that on average across the EU, women’s pensions are 39% lower than men’s.12 The critical path to equal employment engagement of women, childcare, is an increasingly central policy area for the EU. But “accessible, affordable and high quality childcare” is still hard to come by for many, and development on this in the EU remains ad hoc, slow and incoherent.13 Most EU countries missed their own childcare targets in 2010, and the Commission has argued that Member States across the board need to up their game if the 2020 employment targets are to be met: “53% of mothers who declare that they do not work or that they work part-time for reasons linked to formal childcare services consider price to be an obstacle. This figure is higher than 70% in Ireland, the Netherlands, Romania and the United Kingdom”.14

Why have rhetorical commitments to gender equality not been matched with clear, consistent and convincing progress? And in particular, why have we responded to the economic crisis not by making better use of an “underutilised” (according to IMF’s Christine Lagarde) female workforce, but instead by entrenching the economic and social exclusion of women under the banner of austerity?  


The economic crisis and the flare up of gender inequality

The EU-wide programme of austerity adopted in response to the financial crisis has impacted harshly upon women, and especially upon women on low incomes. The public sector plays a significant role in gender equalisation, and so public sector cuts inevitably set gender equality back. In 2010 the public sector employed 40.3% of all employed women in the EU, compared to 17.8% of all employed men. It is a significant source of female professionalism, accounting for 57.4% of all employed women with tertiary education, compared to 32.1% of all employed men with tertiary education.15 In several cases the public sector adopts stronger employment equality policies than the private sector.

The gendered nature of austerity-driven shifts in welfare systems is evident in countries throughout the EU,  with Hungary for example appearing to abandon gender equality, combining austerity with pro-natalist policies to reposition women as ‘bearers and carers’ of children.

The public sector is also a vital source of income support for reproductive labour, and welfare cutbacks result in a disproportionate number of women facing destitution while supporting children. Figures vary, with some estimates putting the proportion of UK welfare cuts coming out of women’s pockets as high as 85%16 or over 90%.17 Cuts to welfare and jobs – especially quality jobs – both result in a disproportionate number of women being forced to work even more for even less. The gendered nature of austerity-driven shifts in welfare systems is evident in countries throughout the EU,18 with Hungary for example appearing to abandon gender equality, combining austerity with pro-natalist policies to reposition women as ‘bearers and carers’ of children.19

So the burden of austerity lies heavily upon women in a number of ways.20 In the UK, research by the House of Commons found that in the 2010 budget, 73% of the cuts in public expenditure fell on women.21 In some of the hardest hit countries, such as Greece, the crisis initially had the most pronounced effects upon male employment, but the longer-term effects of austerity measures have been disproportionately borne by women.22 In some cases the crisis appeared to slightly reduce the gender pay gap, due to a levelling down of male wages, but in countries such as the UK the crisis has halted efforts to reduce the gap, contributing to equality-stagnation.23

Who could possibly think that policies that punish and exclude half of the population are good for society and the economy at large, or represent a fair sharing of the crisis-burden? Well, men. The male tilt of decision-making institutions creates a blinkered elision of male interests with that of the economy. It is hardly a surprising coincidence that the dominant group in power should decide that indirect discrimination in their favour happens to make economic sense.


Manthropomorphising: The economy is not a ‘he’

The EU has been a driver of austerity policies, under the language of “sound fiscal policies” mandated in the Stability and Growth Pact, and the “corrective” mechanisms of the Excessive Deficit Procedure and Excessive Imbalance Procedure.24 National governments have fallen into step, willingly pushing the austerity agenda; the UK government notoriously voluntarily committed to measures in excess of those required to meet EU standards.

EU institutions and national governments are, of course, heavily male dominated. Women account for 9 out of 28 Commissioners, and even after a reshuffle to improve the gender balance only 8 out of 36 Directors General are women. 37% of MEPs are women, while across the EU 28, the male/female ratio for members of national parliaments (both houses) is 72/28.

The economy is not a zero-sum game where investment in measures that equalise women in the workplace take an equivalent slice out of men’s fiscal contributions; the more people who are working, and working in quality jobs, the bigger the economy gets.

We are stuck in a gender inequality trap, whereby gender inequality is perpetually reproduced. Exclusion or partial exclusion from the labour market and reduced career opportunities result in significant gender imbalances of power. Women are less likely than men to occupy decision-making positions. And so decisions continue to be made that perpetuate the social and financial exclusion of women and reduce their opportunities to reach positions in which they might help rebalance the decision-making process. A European Commission report noted that while the proportion of women in national governments across the EU (senior ministers) rose by a meagre 7 percentage points from 21% at the end of February 2004 to 28% in February 2015. At 0.7% per year it will take “until 2047 to achieve parity (50%)”. 25

The result is skewed economic decision-making, whereby gender equality measures are viewed as a social cost to be pared back when in crisis mode. Until the gender imbalance in institutions and parliaments is addressed, it will be difficult to shift the dynamic in which women are supplicants to male-held purse strings, or to shatter the illusion of neutrality and rationality embedded in male economic priorities. But gender equality is not an extravagance to be indulged when the sun is shining, or a peccadillo of the profligate. It is an economic and social necessity. The economy is not a zero-sum game where investment in measures that equalise women in the workplace take an equivalent slice out of men’s fiscal contributions; the more people who are working, and working in quality jobs, the bigger the economy gets.


Gender equality is not charitable or utopian

The EU’s long-term concern with gender equality has not been fuelled by altruism or moral imperative, but by economic rationality. The European Commission argued in 2009 that gender equality could boost economic growth by between 15-45%, with then-Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities Vladimír Špidla asserting that to “overcome the economic crisis we must use all potential and involve everybody’s talents”.26 A Commission report on women in corporate boards in the EU reported that companies with more women on their boards had a 42% higher return in sales, 66% higher return on invested capital and 53% higher return on equity.27 The European Network on Gender Equality in presenting the “business case for gender equality” argued that women “in greater than token proportions improve decision-making; improve shareholder value; and lower risk-taking”.28 While the concept of a ‘business case’ for gender equality is problematic, instrumental and ideologically-loaded, it is still difficult to escape the conclusion that there is no valid business case for gender inequality. Male dominated institutions have ‘manthropomorphised’ the economy, elevating male interests to represent the good of us all, and demoting female interests, to the significant detriment not only of women, but to the size and quality of the workforce, to countries facing child and elder care crises and increased child poverty, to the quality of economic decision making, and self-referentially, to the detriment of the pursuit of gender equality. So the cycle of inequality and exclusion continues, gender equality goals remain out of reach, EU action remains rhetorical, and that which is necessary and attainable is inappropriately characterised as utopian, sacrificed for the greater good of society and economy. We are society; it’s our economy, too.


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obrien-webDr. Charlotte O’Brien is a Senior Lecturer at York Law School. She combines advice and advocacy work in Citizens Advice bureaux with academic research in EU social law, particularly EU equal treatment and non-discrimination law, free movement and citizenship, and the rights of carers. She was awarded an ESRC Future Research Leaders award for the EU Rights Project and is an analytical expert for the European Commission’s free movement and social security network.

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