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Friday 9th September, a seminar took place in Brussels organised by the European Institute for Gender Equality and Yellow Window. Along the rising political attention on the subject of gender equality, the aim of this seminar was to share experiences of good practices in the academic area. In October, a new tool will be available to help institutions implement gender equality in all policies areas. A week later, the 13th September, the European Parliament adopted a report regarding the creation of labour market conditions favouring work-life balance.

The EU’s commitment to achieve gender equality

The European Union’s concern for gender equality could be mapped back to the Treaty of Rome and its principle of equal pay for equal work (Art. 119). This shows that gender equality is not only a matter of fundamental rights but could also benefit social and economic purposes. Indeed, in December 2015, the Juncker Commission announced its “Strategic engagement for gender equality 2016-2019” that focuses on five priorities:

  • Increase female labour market participation and equal economic independence;
  • Reduce the gender pay, earnings and pension gaps and thus fight poverty among women;
  • Promote equality between women and men in decision-making;
  • Combat gender-based violence; protect and support victims;
  • Promote gender equality and women’s rights across the world.

In order to achieve these objectives, gender mainstreaming must be integrated in all policies areas and programs of the EU and its institutions. The gender mainstreaming strategy can be defined as a mean to achieve gender equality. It implies to take into account the gender perspective at each stages of policy-making and during the implementation, monitoring and evaluating a policy or a program, as well as ensuring that regulatory measures and spending programs are gender sensitive. Nevertheless, these definitions often remain quite abstract and don’t give any practical information on how to achieve gender equality. In this respect, the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), which is an autonomous agency, must help EU institutions achieving gender equality by providing tools, methods and goods practices of gender mainstreaming. The institute was established in 2006 and the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union established its objectives and tasks. Among other things, it must provide information and resources to help understand gender issues as research has shown that a lack of knowledge on these issues prevent from implementing effectively gender mainstreaming plans. Hence, to help them carry out their tasks, civil servants and relevant stakeholders can find useful information and toolkits on the EIGE’s website.

Gender mainstreaming is not a single public policy but an ongoing action; it is defined by the EIGE as “a process whereby a gender equality perspective is integrated into a range of different processes and tasks, a variety of methods and tools that support its implementation are therefore used in the different operational work flows of a particular field of activities”. The essential precondition for its application lies in the existence of political will and commitment, a legal framework and a well prepared implementation system. To integrate gender equality in all policies and programs, the EIGE established a “Gender mainstreaming cycle” that consists of four phases: define, plan, act and check. Each of these phases has its own practical tools ranging from gender budgeting to gender statistics, to assess and help integrate gender equality.

Learning and dissemination seminar on gender equality

The seminar was part of the wider program aiming at sharing good practices as several other tools will be launched in the coming weeks such as the Gender Equality in Academia in research tool. The general objective of these tools is to enhance gender equality in the research of the EU. It is primarily aimed at the academic area but it could also be used in institutions, national parliaments and in the private sector. This is why it is important to monitor how this tool will evolve to see if – in practice – gender mainstreaming methods are viable.

Yellow Window and EIGE, together with the DG Research and Innovation of the Commission, have been working for three years on this project. Indeed, promoting gender equality is one of the objectives of Horizon 2020. This is the largest European framework on research and innovation ever initiated with €80 billion available for funding from 2014 to 2020. It is not only dedicated to hard science but also to humanities and society. It aims at giving an engaged orientation to research and innovation that can benefit and help tackle societal challenges. In this respect, the GEAR tool is funded by the Commission because it aims at “promot[ing] gender equality in particular by supporting structural changes in the organisation of research institutions and in the content and design of research activities”. The research mapped and analysed legal and policy frameworks that promote gender equality in research, identified good practices in higher education institutions and created the tool that will soon be launched to help organisations set up, implement, monitor and evaluate gender equality plans.

To illustrate its research, the seminar presented ten examples of good European practices – in decision-making and career progression support for instance. These examples are not exhaustive but provide a range of concrete practices of gender mainstreaming and opened a discussion – there is not a single solution to diverse problematic situations. These cases will all be accessible when the tool is launched and hopefully will be a source of inspiration and motivation for institutions that do not already have gender mainstreaming programs. In the meantime, we invite all relevant stakeholders to consult EIGE’s website that already provides useful knowledge, methods and practical tools to efficiently implement gender mainstreaming.

The EP report on creating labour market conditions favouring work-life balance

The tool that EIGE is going to launch in a few weeks comes at a time when the European Parliament adopted (13th September) a non legislative resolution on creating labour market conditions favoring work-life balance. It was prepared by Vilija Blinkevičiūtė (S&D) from the women’s right and gender equality committee and Tatjana Ždanoka (Greens/EFA) from the employment committee and follows a roadmap on work-life balance presented by the Commission when it removed its Directive on Maternity leave. With this initiative, the EP wants to establish a two weeks mandatory and paid paternity leave and extend the parental leave from four to six months. It is not the first time the EU tries to tackle the problem; a draft on a new Maternity leave directive is stuck in legislative process since 2008. The actual framework covering pregnant women is the Council directive 92/85/EEC and the framework covering parental leave is the Directive 2010/18/EU; this report from the EP is a strong signal to the Commission that it should « step up its work in this field ». MEPs consider that the Commission does take enough initiatives and that “credits for care” should be established for women who are in charge of a dependent person, other that their child. The EP would also like to put in place a minimum child coverage to ensure every child has access to health, school and free child care.

If the Commission wants to effectively achieve its gender equality objectives before the end of its mandate, it should actively work on the modernisation of its current legal and policy framework. A work-life balance is considered as a fundamental rights issue but is also a societal matter. Albeit women are increasingly well qualified, they are still under-represented or have jobs that do not match their skills, while parental leave also causes negative effects on women’s employment rate. In addition to often taking more time off throughout their career to take care of their children, women are also more frequently the ones that take care of the elderly or another dependent relative. These factors contribute to social exclusion and poverty: the gender pension gap (40%) is the most indicative illustration of the existing inequalities.

The EP, with this report, is asking the Commission to:

  • revise the Pregnant Workers (Maternity Leave) Directive. Currently it provides 14 weeks of paid maternity leave and protection against dismissal but this report proposes to extend the paid maternity leave and diversify the payment formula in order to accommodate at best to specific needs and traditions in different Member States;
  • establish a Paternity Leave Directive that can allow men to share equally the caring responsibility and provide for a minimum mandatory and non transferable paid leave for fathers;
  • present a report of the implementation of the Parental Leave Directive 2010/18/EU;
  • think of a Carer’s leave directive as supplement to the affordable professional care and enable workers to care for dependents;

This report is now in the hands of the social partners who need to assess before the 30th September if the Commission is competent on this matter (maternity, paternity and parental leave, flexibility at work and care dispenser leave) or if they will negotiate it further.

The end of this consultation matches with the launching of practical tools by the EIGE to implement gender mainstreaming: it is an opportunity to take a step forward in tackling gender inequalities. The Commission and the social partners should take advantage of the knowledge made available by the DG-RTD and the EIGE. Finding a healthy work-life balance contributes to the reduction of stress for the mother and her colleagues and is in this respect a matter of personal well-being public health. Policies alone will not achieve gender equality in society and public opinion but they are essential to build a legislative framework that protects women and ensures professional career and motherhood are not conflicting aspirations.

Elisa Neufkens

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