SDG 5 - Gender equality

Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

Data extracted in August 2018

Planned article update: September 2019


EU trend of SDG 5 on gender equality

This article provides an overview of statistical data on SDG 5 ‘Gender equality’ in the European Union (EU). It is based on the set of EU SDG indicators for monitoring of progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in an EU context.

This article is part of a set of statistical articles, which are based on the Eurostat publication ’Sustainable development in the European Union — Monitoring report - 2018 edition’. This report is the second edition of Eurostat’s series of monitoring reports on sustainable development, which provide a quantitative assessment of progress of the EU towards the SDGs in an EU context.

Goal 5 aims to achieve gender equality by ending all forms of discrimination, violence and any harmful practices against women and girls in the public and private spheres. It also calls for women’s full participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of political and economic decision-making.

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Gender equality in the EU: overview and key trends

Monitoring SDG 5 in an EU context focuses on the topics of gender-based violence, education, employment and leadership positions. As shown in Table 1, gender equality in the EU has improved in terms of leadership positions. The labour market participation of women has generally also increased over the past few years. However, the gender gap due to caring responsibilities has widened. In the area of education, progress towards gender equality has been mixed.

Gender-based violence

Gender-based violence is a brutal form of discrimination and a violation of fundamental human rights. It is both a cause and a consequence of inequalities between women and men. Physical and sexual violence against women by a partner or a non-partner affects their health and well-being. Moreover, it can hamper women’s access to employment with negative effects on their financial independence and the economy overall.

One in three women in Europe has experienced physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15

Figure 2: Physical and sexual violence to women experienced within 12 months prior to the interview, EU-28, 2012 (% of women)
Source: European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) (sdg_05_10)

In 2012, 8 % of women in the EU had experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a partner or a non-partner in the 12 months prior to the interview. Younger women were more likely to report having been subject to violence [1]; 13 % of women aged between 18 and 29 had experienced physical or sexual violence in the 12 months prior to the interview, whereas only 5 % of women aged 50 or above had been affected. Looking at a longer period of life, every third woman (33 %) in the EU reported having experienced physical or sexual violence since the age of 15 [2].

The prevalence of violence in the EU varies greatly both within countries and between countries. Some northern European countries such as Belgium, Denmark, France, Netherlands and Sweden reported the highest rates, with 11 % of women reporting of having experienced physical and/or sexual violence in the 12 months prior to the interview. The lowest rates had been reported in Slovenia (3 %), Spain and Poland (4 %). However, caution is needed when comparing prevalence rates between countries, because in some countries there is a stigma associated with disclosing cases of violence against women in certain settings and to certain people, including interviewers [3]. In addition, it can also be observed that Member States that rank highest in terms of gender equality tend also to have a greater prevalence of violence against women. This indicates a greater awareness and willingness of women in these countries to disclose experiences of violence to the police or to an interviewer [4].


Equal access to a quality education is an important foundation for gender equality and an essential element of sustainable development. Equipping people with the right skills allows them to find quality jobs and improve their chances in life. Early leavers from education and training may face considerable difficulties in the labour market. For example, they may find it difficult to obtain a secure foothold because employers may be more reluctant to take them on with their limited education. Nowadays, completing compulsory education is often not considered sufficient. Thus, having a degree from a university or other institution of higher education is becoming more important for both men and women. Tertiary education is considered to have an essential role in society, by fostering innovation, increasing economic development and growth, and improving more generally the well-being of citizens. While women are participating in education more actively, the picture is different when it comes to employment rates of young graduates.

The gender gap in early school leavers is narrowing

In the EU, women overall tend to perform better than men when it comes to participation in education. However, the two indicators on participation in basic and tertiary education show divergent trends in the development of these gender gaps. While men are catching up with women in early school leaving, they continue to fall behind in attaining tertiary education.

In the EU, men are more likely to leave education and training early. In 2017, 12.1 % of men and 8.9 % of women aged 18 to 24 had left education and training with at most lower secondary education. Since 2002, these shares have fallen steadily. Progress was stronger for men, resulting in the gender gap narrowing from 4.1 percentage points in 2002 to 3.2 percentage points in 2017.

A major expansion in higher education systems has taken place in the EU since the introduction of the Bologna process. The share of the population aged 30 to 34 who completed tertiary education increased steadily between 2002 and 2017. However, while the proportion of women with tertiary educational attainment rose from 24.5 % to 44.9 %, the increase was much slower for men, from 22.6 % to 34.9 %. This means the gender gap increased considerably, from 1.9 to 10.0 percentage points between 2002 and 2017.

Although more women than men have completed tertiary education, the employment rate of female graduates is lower While women tend to participate more actively in education, the picture changes as soon as young graduates move from education into the labour market. At this stage, male graduates are more likely to have found employment than their female counterparts. This reversed gender gap compared with the education figures is remarkable, considering the important role education and training play in raising employability. In 2017, 82.0 % of men aged 20 to 34 who had at least an upper secondary qualification and had left education and training within the past three years were employed compared with 78.4 % of women. However, this gender gap has narrowed over time, from 2.5 percentage points in 2006 to 1.8 percentage points in 2017.


Ensuring high employment rates for both men and women is one of the EU’s key targets. Reducing the gender employment gap — the difference between the employment rates of men and women aged 20 to 64 — is important for equality and a sustainable economy. Women have a higher average level of education in most EU countries. Because a higher level of education is associated with higher average wages, this has a positive impact on the overall gender pay gap. However, it does not prevent women in the EU from being over-represented in industries with low pay levels, and being under-represented in well-paid industries. Because of the gender pay gap and shorter working lives, women earn less over their lifetimes than men. This results in lower pensions and a risk of poverty in old age.

Gender equality has improved in the labour market, but many women remain inactive due to caring responsibilities

Figure 3: Inactive population due to caring responsibilities, by sex, EU-28, 2006–2017 (% of inactive population aged 20 to 64)
Source: Eurostat (sdg_05_40)

The selected indicators for the sub-theme on employment show gender equality in the labour market has increased over the past few years. Since 2011, both the gender employment gap and the gender pay gap have narrowed, with the gender employment gap reaching 11.5 percentage points in 2017 and the gender pay gap reaching 16.2 % in 2016. These levels are 0.7 percentage points (for the employment gap) and 0.6 percentage points (for the pay gap) lower than five years before, indicating that gender differences have declined more quickly for employment rates than for wages. The picture is slightly different regarding the inactive population outside the labour market. Women were far more likely to be economically inactive due to caring responsibilities, for example, for children or other family members.

The gender pay gap has decreased slightly over the past years

Figure 4: Gender pay gap in unadjusted form, EU-27 and EU-28, 2008–2016 (% of average gross hourly earnings of men)
Source: Eurostat (sdg_05_20)

In 2016, women’s gross hourly earnings were on average 16.2 % below those of men in the EU. There are various reasons for the existence and size of the gender pay gap such as the kind of jobs held by women in terms of sectors or occupations, consequences of career breaks or part-time work due to childbearing and caring responsibilities and decisions in favour of family life. Thus, the pay gap is linked to a number of legal, social and economic factors which go far beyond the single issue of equal pay for equal work.

In 2016, the gender pay gap was generally much lower for new labour market entrants and tended to widen with age. This age effect might be a result of the career interruptions women experience during their working life, with older women in particular unable to benefit from specific equality measures that did not exist when they started work, such as flexible working arrangements or childcare facilities.

In 11 Member States, the gender pay gap was most distinct in the ‘financial and insurance activities’ sector, with the gross hourly earnings for women on average more than 30 % below those of men in 2016. Four Member States each had the highest gender pay gaps in the ‘professional, scientific and technical activities’ sector and in the ‘other service activities’ sector. In contrast, many Member States reported higher average earnings for women than for men in the construction sector and in the ‘water supply, sewerage, waste management and remediation activities’ sector. These negative gender pay gaps might be due to the so-called selection effect, meaning that only women with higher skills are attracted to these industries [5].

While women are still less likely to be employed than men, the gender employment gap has narrowed

Figure 5: Gender employment gap, EU-28, 2001–2017 (percentage points, persons aged 20–64)
Source: Eurostat (sdg_05_30)

Employment rates of women are an indication of the social customs of a country, attitudes towards women in the labour force and family structures in general [6]. The gender employment gap has narrowed by 6.6 percentage points between 2001 and 2017. The strongest reduction occurred during the economic crisis, partly because jobs were lost in traditionally male-dominated fields, such as construction and the automotive industry [7]. The gap continued to shrink until 2014, but has remained stable since then. In 2017, the proportion of men of working age in employment still exceeded that of women by 11.5 percentage points.

A number of factors contribute to this situation. There is a considerable gender gap with regard to inactivity due to caring responsibilities, especially in countries where childcare services or facilities taking care of elderly and other dependent relatives are unaffordable or absent [8]. In addition, the longer that women are out of the labour market or remain unemployed due to care duties, the harder it becomes for them to find a job.

Caring responsibilities were by far the main reason for inactivity among women

The gender gap is particularly pronounced regarding inactivity due to caring responsibilities, caused by the lack of available, accessible and quality formal care services, especially for children [9]. Inactivity due to caring responsibilities was the main reason for women not being part of the labour force, with almost one in three inactive women (31.0 %) reporting this reason in 2017. In contrast, only 4.5 % of inactive men reported being inactive due to caring responsibilities. For them, the main reasons for being inactive were illness or disability, retirement or being in education or training. The share of men who were out of the labour force due to caring responsibilities steadily increased between 2006 and 2017. However, over the same period the share of inactive women due to caring responsibilities increased even more, widening the gender gap from 23.7 percentage points in 2006 to 26.5 percentage points in 2017.

Leadership positions

Traditional gender roles, a lack of support to allow women and men to balance care responsibilities with work, and political and corporate cultures are some of the reasons why women are underrepresented in decision-making processes. Promoting equality between women and men in decision-making is one of the areas the EU has set as a priority for achieving gender equality. With regard to political decision-making, the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments (both houses, where relevant) has risen almost steadily since 2003. The share of women in senior management positions has also increased considerably in the same time period.

The share of seats held by women in national parliaments has increased steadily since 2003

Figure 6: Seats held by women in national parliaments, EU-28, 2003–2018 (% of seats)
Source: Eurostat (sdg_05_50)

Women held 29.7 % of seats in national parliaments in the EU in 2018. This share has increased since 2003, when women accounted for about one-fifth of members in national parliaments. However, the share of men in national parliaments is still considerably higher across the EU as a whole, and there was no single EU country in early 2018 where women held more seats than men.

Factors contributing to this under-representation include that women are seldom leaders of major political parties, which are instrumental in forming future political leaders, or gender norms and expectations reducing the pool of female candidates for selection as electoral representatives. The share of female members of government (senior and junior ministers) in the EU increased from 23.3 % in 2003 to 29.5 % in 2018. The number of female presidents and prime ministers in EU countries also went up. In 2018, there were three female heads of government (10.7 %) in comparison to none in 2003. In the time period considered, the share of female heads of government was never higher than 14.3 %, meaning there were never more than four women in this executive position at the same time [10].

The share of seats held by women in national parliaments varied considerably between EU countries in 2018. In Sweden, almost half of the seats were held by women (45.8 %). In Hungary, the share of women in parliaments was four times lower (11.6 %). Between 2013 and 2018, the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments increased in the majority of EU countries. However, the proportion decreased in eight EU countries, by up to eight percentage points. Effectively designed electoral gender quotas [11] as well as proportional representation systems [12] may explain the higher representation of women in some cases.

In 2017, a quarter of the board members of the largest listed companies were women

Figure 7: Positions held by women in senior management, EU-28, 2003–2017 (% of positions)
Source: Eurostat (sdg_05_60)

The share of women in boards of the largest listed companies was 25.3 % in 2017. Between 2003 and 2017, there was an almost steady increase of 16.8 percentage points. However, the numbers mean that three out of four board members of largest listed companies are still men. The data on board members nevertheless provide evidence of the positive impact of legislative action on the issue of female representation in boards [13].

The share of women is lower when considering only the members of the second highest decision-making body of the largest listed companies (such as management board in case of a two-tier governance system and executive/management committee in a unitary system). In 2017, the share of female members in the two highest decision-making bodies was 15.8 % across the EU; in 2012, it was 10.4 %. The fact that senior management positions are more likely to be held by men is one of the reasons for the gender pay gap [14].

The share of female board members varied considerably between EU countries. In 2017, France was the closest to parity in boards with 43.4 % female members. In the same year, Estonia had only 7.4 % female board members. While the representation of women in corporate boards improved in most Member States, the changes between 2012 and 2017 have been far from uniform. Italy, France and Belgium stand out with increases of over 17 percentage points, while at the other end of the spectrum there has been no significant progress (less than two percentage points) in Slovakia and Latvia and even a decline in Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Estonia.


Ending all forms of discrimination against women and girls and empowering women are crucial to accelerating sustainable development. Empowerment of women and the realisation of gender equality depends on the balanced participation of women and men in formal education, in the labour market and in leadership positions. Equal access to quality education, especially tertiary education, helps to improve chances in life for both men and women. Moreover, closing the gender employment gap is an urgent economic and social objective, for the individual as well as for society as a whole. In addition, promoting equality between women and men in decision-making has been a key objective of European policy for many years. Another important aspect is the elimination of physical and sexual violence against women, which is not only a consequence of gender inequality, but reinforces disparities between women and men.

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More detailed information on EU SDG indicators for monitoring of progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as indicator relevance, definitions, methodological notes, background and potential linkages, can be found in the introduction of the publication ’Sustainable development in the European Union — Monitoring report - 2018 edition’.


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  2. European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (2014), Violence against women: an EU-wide survey, Main results, Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, p. 17.
  3. European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (2014), Violence against women: an EU-wide survey, Main results, Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, p. 25-26, 32.
  4. European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (2014), Violence against women: an EU-wide survey, Main results, Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, p. 25-26, 32.
  5. European Federation of Public Service Unions (2013), The Gender Pay Gap in Public Services, p. 9, p. 51.
  6. International Labour Organisation (2015), Key Indicators of the Labour market: Full report, Ninth Edition, Geneva: International Labour Office, p. 17.
  7. European Commission (2009), Economic Crisis in Europe: Causes, Consequences and Responses, Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs, p. 36.
  8. European Commission’s Expert Group on Gender and Employment Issues (2009), The provision of childcare services: A comparative review of 30 European countries, Luxembourg, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, p. 23–24.
  9. European Commission (2017), Draft Joint Employment Report from the Commission and the Council accompanying the Communication from the Commission on the Annual Growth Survey 2018, COM(2017) 674 final, Brussels, p. 57.
  10. European Institute for Gender Equality, Gender Statistics Database (National governments: presidents and prime ministers).
  11. Freidenvall, L., Dahlerup, D. and Johansson, E. (2013), Electoral Gender Quota, Systems and their Implementation in Europe, Brussels, p. 5.
  12. European Parliament (2017), Women in parliaments, At a glance, Infographic, p. 2.
  13. European Commission (2017), 2018 Report on equality between women and men in the EU, Luxembourg: Publication Office of the European Union, p. 31.
  14. European Commission (2017), Employment and Social Developments in Europe, Annual Review 2017, Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, p. 34.