Women's day is a day for reflecting on how far we have got in terms of gender equality. Gender equality is not only a fundamental right, but also vital to the growth, prosperity and competitiveness of Europe’s economies. With the population growing older, birth rates falling and the prospect of skill shortages ahead, taking advantage of everyone's talents and making gender diversity a growth asset is more important than ever.
We cannot ignore the way in which the crisis has affected gender-equality.
When the crisis first hit, the gender employment gap narrowed because the crisis mainly affected sectors like construction and car manufacturing where men were predominant. But since then, cuts in public sector employment and public spending appear to have had a significant adverse effect on the gender gap. This is due to some extent to the fact that women are over-represented in the public sector. They also tend to depend more on access to certain services, including childcare, long-term care and health care.
Reaching the Europe 2020 Strategy targets for employment and poverty reduction should strengthen women's social and economic rights. Yet the figures are disappointing. The female employment rate varies widely across the EU, but it is lower than that of males in all Member States. In 2011, the employment rate for men stood at 70.1 % in the EU-27, as compared with 58.5 % for women.
What is more, one man in ten worked part-time on average, but the average for women was three in ten. Working part-time may be a choice, but it often goes hand in hand with lower hourly earnings, fewer training opportunities, less job security, and reduced pension entitlements. This can be put down partly to unpaid household, childcare and long-term care tasks.
Women’s working conditions have moreover become more insecure and their income has dropped significantly. This is due to the persistent gap between salaries for men and women and the resulting lack of equality in unemployment benefit, and the rise in imposed part-time working and in the number of temporary or fixed‑term jobs.
Another major factor is skills. Although women are doing better than men in almost all disciplines throughout the OECD countries, the numbers of female graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are still low.
And the women who do graduate in these fields, where labour market demand is highest, often choose not to work in them. By combating gender stereotypes in early schooling, education and training systems and providing more apprenticeships for young women in businesses, more women could be encouraged to study these disciplines and to pursue a career in these fields.
Temporary or part-time work, single-parent households, pay gaps and career breaks also help to explain why 12 million more women than men live in poverty in the EU.
In a situation where welfare is among the first targets of budget cuts, we need to remember that social protection plays a vital role in preventing women from falling into poverty and in helping to lift them out of it. Moreover, social spending which leads to more gender equality should be seen as a social investment. This is one the messages we conveyed with the Social Investment Package adopted on 20th February. It recalls for instance that the transition from part-time to full-time working could be facilitated by the provision of available, affordable childcare and out-of school services.
For its part, the Commission will continue to closely monitor the Member States’ progress on gender equality through the European Semester. During the last Semester nine Member States have received country-specific recommendations on gender equality or fostering a better work-life balance. Most concern the provision of adequate and affordable care services, while some concern better fiscal treatment of second-earners. Two Member States received recommendations on a high gender pay gaps.
It is also important to recall how the EU Structural Funds can be used to strengthen women's social and economic rights. European Social Fund actions have a strong added value in terms of promoting gender equality in the Member States. And the Commission's proposal for the next programming period offers major possibilities for reinforcing gender equality.
The goal of full gender equality may seem like a mirage that retreats before you as you advance towards it.
But our future growth and prosperity will depend on how successful we are in harnessing the talents of all, and women in particular.