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Gender equality: still an issue for women at work?

Sixth session in the cycle on


Jobs opportunity in 2020


Click here  to view a summary of the event


23 November 2017



Mrs Maria Noichl

Member of the European Parliament, 

Women's rights and gender equality committee


Mrs Efi Anastasiou

Policy officer in the social investment Strategy Unit of DG EMPL, 

European Commission


Mr Guillaume Cravero

Senior adviser, 

Social affairs department at BusinessEurope



Nicolas Vincent



Gender equality is an EU fundamental value, embedded in the Treaty as from the very beginning of the European construction. Over the years, further developments, targets and actions have nourished this notion and its implementation within EU Member States. Despite progress in various fields (such as employment of women, measures to ease access to childcare facilities, development of flexible working solutions) the situation is highly variable throughout the EU and some huge challenges remain: unequal career advancement, pay and pension gap, rights and social inequalities, gender sharing out of unpaid jobs and care distribution, to name a few.


It is worth noting that acting in such challenging fields would have positive consequences on organisations (notably companies) and on the society in general. A recent EIGE study reveals that “a more gender equal EU would have strong, positive GDP impacts growing over time, higher level of employment and productivity and could respond to challenges related to the ageing population in the EU. By 2050, improving gender equality would lead to an increase in EU (GDP) per capita by 6.1 to 9.6%, which amounts to €1.95 to €3.15 trillion.”


It seems therefore useful to deepen the debate on the remaining obstacles for a proper implementation of measures to tackle gender equality, and notably the one related to the conciliation of work and private life which is currently debated due to the recent release by the European Commission of the iinitiative to support work-life balance for working parents and carers.  


The session of Policies and Practices addressed these issues and more specifically:

  • the remaining challenges to tackle gender equality at the workplace and how the  the work-life balance package helps addressing them;
  • the visibility and recognition of the returns on investment on gender equality: how to reinforce them to promote the necessity to act?
  • the involvement of stakeholders to face such a societal challenge.




Mrs Noichl opened the session with her appraisal of the situation of equal opportunities in the workplace: “gender equality has not been achieved yet”, said the MEP, “women [have] the right to be treated equal and to have the same opportunities as men”, she continued. Stereotypes come in right at a very early stage, from the first education days, where young girls are limited in their choices and exposed to a contrived role they can take in society, warned Mrs Noichl.

Once they reach the workplace, women face an even deeper form of discrimination: parenting. Most employers expect, beyond the pregnancy of a female recruit, that she will take care of the children. As a consequence, said Mrs Noichl, “women still work more often in low paid work and short term contracts”. “Full time work for many women is only a dream”, regretted Mrs Noichl. 


In this light, the “work-life balance directive needs to be adopted as quickly as possible.” It is fundamental that childcare be shared between the parents and not rely on the mother-caring stereotype. 


The directive should also help reinforce the Istanbul convention, as fighting violence against women should be the “basis” of a working society. Mrs Noichl said we simply cannot accept “that half the population is not able to be safe at home, at work or on the street.” 


Mrs Noichl regretted the lack of a unified strategy of gender equality at the EU level and that it has become embedded as part of an action promoting jobs.



Efi Anastasiou presented the proposal of the Commission on work-life balance, a joint initiative between DG EMPL and DG JUST. Currently, it is being negotiated at the Council, before reaching the Parliament. The initiative is a key element of the European pillar of social rights, more precisely linked to the ninth principle, which refers to the rights of parents and people with caring responsibilities to suitable leave, flexible working arrangements and access to care services.


Mrs Anastasiou introduced the three challenges identified by the Commission:

  1.  The first challenge is the inadequate family-related leaves and flexible working arrangements that have a direct effect on female labour market participation. “We see that in Member States that allocate leave specifically for fathers there is a larger take-up of leaves by men”, said Mrs Anastasiou, which in turn helps women to re-enter the labour market. The initiative, said Mrs Anastasiou, “improves the availability and attractiveness of leaves to fathers”, specifically paternity and parental leaves.
  2. The second important challenge is affordability, accessibility and quality of formal care services, e.g. child care, out-of-school care or long term care. “We encourage this as well in our initiative”, said Mrs Anastasiou, so that women feel comfortable to stay in the labour market while they have children or dependent relatives being taken care of.
  3. The third challenge tackles economic disincentives for second earners which are, very often, women. Across Member States, said Mrs Anastasiou, “we see that tax systems, for example, through joint taxation systems, transferable tax credits or deductions for single earner household, etc. make it better for women to stay at home.” Consequently, said Ms Anastasiou, they have no reason to (re-)enter the labour market.


Mrs Anastasiou took some time to present the proposal to the audience in detail. She explained it had come after the withdrawal of the proposal to amend the maternity leave directive. “In the directive we introduced some new rights,” explained Mrs Anastasiou, such as paternity leave which would be a new right across Europe. Mrs Anastasiou explained it would allow fathers to take at least ten working days of paternity leave when their child is born. These days would be paid at sick pay level. 


The “right to paternity leave” should have a direct impact on female labour market participation, noted Mrs Anastasiou, “because it acts as a leverage effect for men to take parental leave later on”, which in turn, “encourages a better sharing of caring responsibilities” which, here also, allows women to remain in the labour market or prevents them from staying out of it for too long. 


In addition, the proposal proposes to maintain a four-month individual entitlement to parental leave for each parent, which would become non-transferable and paid at sick pay level. 

The directive would also provide leave for carers: five days per year per employee so that they could take care of dependent relatives or organise services for them.


Finally, Mrs Anastasiou explained that the proposal also includes complementary non-legislative actions – an important aspect since certain policy areas are out of the Commission’s legislative competence, such as childcare or long term care. These actions, set out in the work-life balance Communication, fall under three policy areas: (1), gender-balanced leaves and the flexible working arrangements, (2) quality, affordability and access to care, and (3) addressing economic disincentives. Actions include increased monitoring through the European semester, better data collection, sharing best practices between Member States etc.


Mrs Anastasiou also explained that the European Social Fund as well as the European Regional Development Fund were resources that were expected to provide financial support in order to improve quality and affordability of access to care.



Representing BusinessEurope, a confederation of enterprises of all sizes in the EU and beyond, Guillaume Cravero was the third speaker on the panel. Mr Cravero reminded the audience that the directive in the making is taking place after the proposal on parental leave was withdrawn. In its present form, said Mr Cravero, it aims mostly “to foster women’s labour force participation in Europe”. Therefore, in his view, it should not be seen as a directive which will “solve all the problems that we have regarding gender equality”. 


Mr Cravero expressed scepticism as to whether the directive would reach its goal, producing instead measures “that will be extremely complicated to manage on a daily basis for companies and with a lot of costs”. And while the costs will be borne by businesses, said Mr Cravero, the benefits will be distributed to society in the longer run. In a way, to the panellist, “companies were asked to solve a societal problem.” 


With this in mind, while the proposal has provisions for childcare or elderly care, there are also provisions for supportive measures to foster care and childcare infrastructure. “This is where we think dialogue should be at European level,” said Mr Cravero: “with business, with social partners, with stakeholders to better finance care provisions”. Furthermore, “a lot of aspects are discussed more and more at branch or company level,” like flexible working hours arrangements. But as far as BusinessEurope is concerned, the real risk lies in having a “piece of legislation that will be completely disconnected from what is happening on the ground.” 


For BusinessEurope the focus should remain on care facilities. “If you encourage parents to leave the workplace for too long, there will be an adversarial effect”, feared Mr Cravero. The world is changing so fast now, added Mr Cravero, that it is hard to predict what measures can or cannot work: “we need to also look into the context of the future of work.”



Mrs Noichl disagreed with Mr Cravero: “I think companies have a part of responsibility. They have to be part of the society,” she explained. Then, Mrs Anastasiou, reacted to the cultural dimension – that Member States have different expectations on gender equality. “We hear a lot that culture brings legislation”, she said but “legislation can also bring cultural changes.” When one says it is the woman’s choice to stay at home to take care of her child, “if the system of leaves for example or childcare as you mentioned does not allow you to actually stay in the labour market then how is it really a choice?” asked Mrs Anastasiou. The directive aims to offer this choice.


“If more women than men graduate from universities then why is it so that fewer women are on the labour market?”, asked Mrs Anastasiou. With greater gender equality, these women could re-enter the labour market and increase the pool of talents available on the market for the benefit, also, of employers.



Regarding Mr Cravero’s criticism towards what he called a “catalogue of leaves”, Mrs Anastasiou disagreed because, “parental leave is already there, as well as paternity leave in most Member States.” The proposal only sets out minimum requirements, precisely to take into consideration the different systems already in place, leaving it up to Member States to increase leave durations beyond the minimum requirements, for instance. 


Regarding parental leave, Ms Anastasiou insisted that costs are mostly borne by the Member States, in those Member States where it is already compensated, criticising the view that businesses would be overburdened through the directive. She added that the directive was not just about childcare. Long term care is also very important. 


Mr Cravero insisted that BusinessEurope agreed on the principles of the directive but they feared that it was putting “disproportionate responsibility onto companies”, which, in their view is not acceptable. To him, these are private matters which become companies’ responsibilities



Taking questions from the floor regarding paternity leave, Mr Cravero insisted that they were not pinpointing such or such measure within the package. “What we comment on is the whole package of measures,” said Mr Cravero. Regarding cultural shifts, Mr Cravero gave the example of Portugal where there is a “well-compensated” paternity leave. “It has not had the intended cultural shift”, he added. 


In Mrs Anastasiou view, paternity leave has other virtues: “in Portugal 80% of fathers who take paternity leave follow up to take parental leave afterwards because it really acts as a leverage effect on taking parental leave.” In this way, she continued, “it helps in the equal sharing of caring responsibilities – it is up to the Member States to decide whether paternity leave should be made compulsory if they think it's more favourable” although in the proposal for a Directive it remains optional.


Mrs Noichl added that, precisely, this EU dimension is needed to establish a level playing field. Establishing a base level should only be the first step towards making the EU homogenous regarding caring and sharing.


On the issue of statistical evidence, Mrs Anastasiou said the Commission is encouraging Member States to improve data collection. The different policy measures seek to enforce better information gathering as this would help quantify “the real value of women’s work” both on the labour market but also in unpaid work.


As a concluding remark, Mrs Noichl pointed that the usual term of “work-life balance” implies that there is work on one side and family on the other. “The term ‘life’, in work-life balance is actually for women to be in charge of the care.” “work-life balance is not work-family balance, it is work, family and free time balance.” And this is what the directive would help to achieve.



Tuesday 28 November, 2023





Policies & Practices