Equal opportunities

A measured approach to gender

How is recognition of the ‘gender’ dimension developing in European politics? To what degree is the principle of equal opportunities extolled by the Union influencing national strategies? What is the real impact on the respective place of men and women in society? The ‘Equapol’ project studied the approach of ‘gender mainstreaming’ in eight European countries (1), focusing on two significant areas: the distribution of income and education.

Depending on the country they live in, men and women are still faced with gender inequality and are far from being equal. Of the eight states studied over a two-year period by the five teams of Equapol researchers, Sweden clearly appeared to be leading the way. ‘Everything’ is in place to eradicate differences relating to rights, status and treatment and it is fair to say that there is truly an ‘integrated approach’ to gender. The aim is to combat the structural roots of inequality between gender by means of this systematic attitude.

The Swedish model

Inequality is understood here as an issue regarding relationships of power, from which nothing seems to be exempt. The Scandinavian style of gender mainstreaming thus extends across all aspects of socio-economic life, political actions, civil society, organisations and asso ciations, and more widely, across values and attitudes affecting the private sphere – such as domestic violence, for example. If this ‘philosophy’ works, it is because it reflects a broad consensus and because it is formally linked to political processes.

Ministries (there is one dedicated purely to gender equality), public authorities at all levels, companies and associations all participate in this movement. A significant part is played by experts whose studies and opinions carry weight in important choices – particularly at the level of public spending. ‘Gender’ has become a completely separate area of research, supported by the government since the end of the 1970s, and almost all universities offer courses on this issue.

Unlike almost all other countries studied by the project, Sweden has firmly institutionalised the gender issue and has a long-term commitment to it. The 3R method is being applied in order to make a practical evaluation of its effects. The first R stands for representation (roles in political life, companies, etc. are shared between men and women). The second R stands for resources (salaries, pensions, sporting or cultural activity grants, etc.) and the third stands for reality (qualitative analysis of the situation, reasons for potential differences).

‘Time is one of the factors of this success,’ notes Mary Braithwaite, technical coordinator of Equapol. ‘Sweden has a long tradition of gender equality as well as equality in general. The Scandinavian model is important for the rest of Europe, even if Scandinavian practice also presents potential excesses of technocracy, law and bureaucracy. But it would be a feeble excuse to condemn these as burdens and thus not appreciate, or indeed adopt, this type of approach.’


Other countries employ a so-called ‘transversal’ equal opportunities model, as gender inequality extends across different levels of power. This attitude often relates to states or regions marked by a tradition of ‘positive actions’ such as Belgium, or to a lesser extent France and Andalusia.

‘France and Belgium have different approaches. In France, initiatives have come from civil society and have progressed upwards to government levels, where they have been considered more as statements of principles rather than as statements of fact. So ultimately there is a gap between theory and reality. In Belgium, initiatives have come from political powers, mostly as part of positive actions,’ explains Salimata Sissoko, researcher at the Université Libre de Bruxelles.

In 1999, the Belgian federal government recognised ‘the role it had to play in making equality between men and women a reality. The assumption on which this initiative was based is the recognition of the transversal nature of the gender dimension.’ Two years later, the government adopted a strategic plan for equality and created a Mainstreaming unit (that has since disappeared), which notably included university experts responsible for identifying and evaluating measures in this area.

Since December 2002, the Institute for the Equality of Men and Women has been the federal public institution charged with ensuring and promoting the equality of men and women and combating all forms of genderbased discrimination and inequality. Belgium, a federal country, also benefits from decentralisation, which enables particular initiatives in the area of gender, leading Flanders, for example, to develop a number of actions in the field of education.

‘An institutional framework thus exists in Belgium,’ adds Salimata Sissoko. ‘With the creation of the Institute comes the recent amendments to the legal framework, projects to classify gender-neutral functions, equality projects, etc. What is lacking, are the commitments which go beyond the simple formal responses to supranational demands (from Europe, the United Nations and others). Furthermore, it also appears that people in the field do not necessarily have all the required expertise and they lack sufficient finance.’

Union impetus

The ‘model driven by the Union’ is considered by researchers at Equapol to be a third method. The inclusion of ‘the gender factor’ in politics is effectively an EU requirement linked to the support provided within the context of structural funds and the European Social Fund. ‘This impetus from ‘above’ has only materialised because this policy coincided with requirements expressed by those at the ‘bottom’, particularly feminist organisations and formal as well as informal networks,’ remarks Mary Braithwaite.

Maria Stratigaki, professor at the Pantheon University in Athens and scientific coordinator at Equapol considers that ‘Union intervention, particularly the European Social Fund finance policy, has been very important for Greece. If the construction of Europe is essentially economic, its facilitation of social equality of opportunities in the labour market is nevertheless enabling us to act at the level of education, equal opportunities in schools, professional training, creation of nurseries, etc. If it were not for Europe, I do not know where we would be at the moment.’

Yet in Greece, as elsewhere, this external impetus has never actually been translated into in an integrated approach. For researchers at Equapol, the ‘EU model’ is more often than not expressed in bureaucratic and/or technological terms as an end in itself, without committing to a wider vision. It remains detached from other elements aimed at equal opportunities. Thus, despite principles close to the heart of the Union, true gender mainstreaming does not appear to be on the agenda.

Equality beyond gender

Other strategies are making inroads. Based on the principle that issues of inequality overlap gender boundaries, ‘wide-scale’ approaches have been applied for several years in the United Kingdom – particularly in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. These policies for ‘restoring the balance’ take into account situations where gender is one of the constituents, in the same manner as disability, race or sexual orientation. According to their advocates, this would enable an increase in support and finance as well as the possibility of building alliances across ‘intersections of identity’ (gender and race, gender and age).

‘Whether or not we appreciate it, a more global approach to equality is underway,’ explains Mary Braithwaite. ‘Moreover, certain supporters of gender mainstreaming see the benefits in this global understanding of inequality, provided that the gender issue is not watered down and that its specific nature is always taken into account.’ Nevertheless, for Maria Stratigaki, ‘burying gender in amongst other sources of inequality seems negative. Women are not a minority… The structure and nature of sexual inequality is varied, in that it concerns other policies and other projects.’

More research…

If European policy has generally legitimised and given credibility to national efforts for equal opportunities, ‘Union support for positive actions nevertheless seems to be running out of steam,’ to quote one report by Equapol. The reason is that the general objectives for equality were drawn up when the influences of international and Scandinavian approaches on gender equality were significant, even though the current policies for education and social protection (and social policy in general) are in line with the Lisbon framework of priorities, and are much more sensitive to trends in ‘competitiveness’ and ‘the labour market’.

Researchers at Equapol are calling for efforts focusing on priority areas not limited to shortterm projects and which should involve a greater number of people. Their final report states that ‘the policy on gender equality and the integrated approach cannot be left solely to either politicians or political structures dominated by men.’

They also conclude that awareness of gender, inequality and the impact of public policy in this area should be reinforced. More evaluations, statistics, information and research are needed. ‘What is the explanation for the persistence of differences in salaries between men and women at this point, even when we are becoming increasingly aware that this inequality is not based on the respective professional abilities of men and women? How can the media and advertisements continue to project such a conservative and sexist image of men and women and their relationships? Much more research still needs to be done, for example on the subject of invisible barriers (psychological, cultural, social, religious) that stand in the way of gender equality,’ concludes Mary Braithwaite.

  1. Belgium, France, Greece, Ireland, Lithuania, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom.

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The great ‘gender current’

Gender mainstreaming.

Gender mainstreaming. This somewhat cryptic expression calls to mind the main current of the river that flows through society. It does not relate to the biological differences, but rather to the social differences that may separate men and women. Mainstreaming involves a global strategy that takes the gender dimension into account in order to rectify existing or potential inequalities. This type of strategy ideally aims to oppose any measures, actions and policies likely to give rise to discrimination and is to be applied to a number of areas (governance, education, development of mentalities, etc.).

Gender mainstreaming began in earnest in 1995, following the fourth United Nations World Conference on women in Beijing, but has been included in the Union's action programmes for equal opportunities since 1991. It has been the subject of a communication issued by the Commission and of a recommendation issued by the Council of Europe. The Treaty of Amsterdam stipulated back in 1997 that equality between men and women was ‘a specific task for the Community as well as a characteristic horizontal objective for all Community tasks’.