It’s (not just) the Economy, Stupid: Gender Equality in the European Union

It’s (not just) the Economy, Stupid: Gender Equality in the European Union
Elizabeth Heise
Vol. 39 Associate Editor

Gender equality is not only a general goal of the EU, but is explicitly written into the founding treaty, which requires member states to promote equality between women and men.[1] Not only does this mandate apply to current member states, but it is also a requirement for potential member states, which “must implement EU rules and regulations in all areas” in order to be considered for membership.[2] This requirement incentivizes these states to take initiative in order to gain a coveted spot within the EU, rather than relying on centralized rules. As a result, specific legislation often occurs at the state level, although the European Parliament has passed several resolutions ranging from combating violence against women to reducing the wage gap,[3] and the European Economic and Social Committee and the European Institute for Gender Equality have also made statements on these issues.[4]

The treaty provisions were originally based on the concept of equal pay for equal work, but the goals of the EU have expanded well beyond this concept.[5] The Strategic Committee for Gender Equality sets the framework for the European Commission’s future work toward equality.[6] This committee has set forth five major goals, which are:

  1. “Increasing female labour market participation and equal economic independence;
  2. Reducing the gender pay, earnings and pension gaps and thus fighting poverty among women;
  3. Promoting equality between women and men in decision-making;
  4. Combating gender-based violence and protecting and supporting victims; [and]
  5. Promoting gender equality and women’s rights across the world.”[7]

Noticeably, the focus of these goals tends to be predominantly economic in nature. The two goals that are listed first are purely economic, encouraging equality in both workforce participation and pay, and thus economic independence and lower levels of poverty as a result. The EU is a political union as well as an economic one, but member states join the EU primarily because of the economic benefits of a powerful single market. By tying gender equality to overall prosperity, the European Commission attempts to frame gender equality as a benefit to states’ economies, rather than as a trade-off that states must make in order to participate in the EU. The third goal, which promotes the more nebulous concept of equality in decision-making, is also economic in its application and in the way it is measured by the Commission, framing it as “the goal of a better balance in economic leadership positions” in the report description.[8] The idea is that if women are fully equal in the EU, they should have an equal say in business decisions, and the best way to measure this progress is by positions of power within businesses.

The last two goals are less economic in nature, and seem to apply more broadly to include states outside the EU.[9] These goals have also been less successful. Perhaps this is because the EU, despite its global influence, exercises little control outside of its borders, as it is unable to use economic incentives or legislation to ensure compliance. The EU, along with the United Nations, outlined Millennium Development Goals in 2000, one of which focused on maternal health, and the Commission report admits that “progress has been disappointingly slow” toward achieving this goal.[10] Unlike with the economic-based goals, specific steps and annual benchmarks for achieving these goals are either vague or nonexistent,[11] which may hinder the Committee’s ability to more closely analyze the reasons that progress has been so slow in these areas.

Additionally, member states throughout the EU vary tremendously in their application of these principles.[12] The European Commission acknowledges that immediate equality is not a realistic goal; rather, it attempts to measure progress from year to year in each of the categories, using measurements such as participation in the labor force. In 2015, women’s labor participation was at 64% in the EU, its highest rate ever, compared to 75% for men.[13] Its goal is to incrementally improve labor participation, and hopes to have 75% participation for both men and women by the year 2020.[14] These numbers seem encouraging, but this report deliberately avoids breaking down the statistics by country. Italy, for instance, had only a 39.306% female participation in the labor market in 2015.[15] Granted, the economy is not uniform between member states despite a singular economy being one of the major focuses of the EU, but if the EU truly wants to promote equality between men and women, it should focus its attention on states that are failing to achieve results rather than treating the EU as a monolith.

Lack of enforcement of the EU’s stated principles also may contribute to the wide disparity between gender equality in member states. Aside from the stated requirement that states must promote equality between men and women, very few specific guidelines exist to aid countries in achieving these goals. Without the cooperation of the states, the European Union will likely be unable to progress as rapidly toward gender equality as its goals anticipate.


[1] Office of Equal Opportunities Ombudsman (Lith.), Gender Equality in European Union, Gender Equality Creates Democracy, https://www.gender-equality.webinfo.lt/results/european_union.htm (last visited Sept. 30, 2017).

[2] Countries, Eur. Union, https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/countries_en#tab-0-1 (last visited Oct. 2, 2017).

[3] Office of Equal Opportunities Ombudsman (Lith.), supra note 1.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Gender Equality, Eur. Commission, http://ec.europa.eu/justice/gender-equality/ (last visited Oct. 2, 2017).

[7] Id.

[8] Eur. Comm’n, Strategic Engagement for Gender Equality 2016-2019 14 (2016), http://ec.europa.eu/anti-trafficking/sites/antitrafficking/files/strategic_engagement_for_gender_equality_en.pdf.

[9] Id. at 15-16.

[10] Id. at 8.

[11] Id. at 29-30.

[12] File: Gender Statistics Figure2.PNG, Eurostat, http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/File:Gender_statistics_Figure2.PNG (last visited Oct. 2, 2017).

[13] Eur. Comm’n, supra note 8, at 7.

[14] Id.

[15] Labor Force Participation Rate, World Bank, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.TLF.CACT.FE.ZS?end=2016&start=1990&view=chart&year_high_desc=false (last visited Oct. 2, 2017).

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