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Gender equality rises up the EU’s agenda

A new strategy hopes to level the playing field between women and men by 2025.

Anke Stock and Anna-Sally Westermann of WECF International evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the new strategy.

The EU has launched its first Gender Equality Strategy (GES), which runs from 2020 to 2025, setting an important milestone for women’s rights and the quest for equality between the genders. This move follows the establishment of a first European Commissioner – Helena Dalli – whose portfolio focuses exclusive on equality.

Unusually for an EU strategy, the GES explicitly refers to the Sustainable Development Goals and SDG 5, which relates to gender equality and women’s empowerment.

One key element of the GES is the dual-implementation approach. The first prong relates to targeted measures focusing on women and girls. The second utilises the 25-year-old principle of mainstreaming gender – which began at the UN’s landmark Beijing Conference – into all policies, programmes and legislation, including the EU’s ambition for a greener and more sustainable Europe.

This means that, for example, the transition towards a sustainable, low-carbon economy not only must target all genders equally but must also address the divergent needs of women and men equally. The different ways in which polluted and toxic environments affect men’s and women’s health require specific “gender-responsive” interventions.

Environment of inequality

Other examples are the significantly higher rates of women living in energy poverty, meaning that they lack the financial means to invest in new technologies for a clean transition. Addressing these gender inequalities within the environmental sector is long overdue and the GES provides a sound basis for action.

Even though a lot has been achieved in recent years, women in the EU still enjoy fewer opportunities and face greater challenges than men.

Nevertheless, we must not lose sight of the fact that 14 EU member states are amongst the top 20 performers when it comes to gender equality, however, progress is still slow.

The GES presents policy objectives and actions that will help move us towards a gender-equal Europe by 2025. The strategy will use an intersectional approach, i.e. the overlap between different forms of discrimination, to empower people so that they are “free to pursue their chosen path in life and reach their full potential, where they have equal opportunities to thrive and can equally participate in and lead our European society.”

Gender on the agenda

Gender-based violence and harassment, as well as gender stereotypes, are root causes of gender inequality and, thus, a priority to tackle. The EU plans to accede to the Istanbul Convention (the Council of Europe’s Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence), which it signed in 2017. Furthermore, gender stereotypes in society will be challenged by launching an EU-wide awareness-raising campaign focusing on youth.

The strategy also targets economic issues, including increasing women’s access to the labour market. Higher participation of women has a strong and positive impact on the economy, notably in the context of a shrinking workforce and skills shortages.

With the intent of reaching parity in economic participation, the strategy strives to close the gender pay, care and pensions gap, as well as to promote equal participation across the different sectors of the economy, including in top jobs. It also seeks to develop EU rules on work-life balance.

One of the first aims is to establish binding measures on pay transparency by the end of 2020.  Furthermore, the promotion of splitting parental leave equally between custodians and of flexible working arrangements are part of the strategy, as well as the promise of investments in care services.

A newly created equality task force will work with the EU institutions to support gender mainstreaming across all policy areas. Climate change is specifically mentioned as a key priority. Additionally, the EU will look at targeted funding for civil society organisations that benefit women through their activities and gender equality will be a core objective of the EU’s external action in other parts of the world.

The strategy contains many valuable objectives and entry points for its implementation. However, it lacks clear targets and monitoring procedures which would allow society to assess progress and to hold the EU accountable for the commitments it made.

This means that, though the Gender Equality Strategy’s goals may be noble, figuring out whether they were achieved may, as it stands, prove to be unknowable. It is, for this reason, that the Commission must urgently development measurable targets against which to gauge performance.