Are Women's Rights And Gender Equality A Reality In The EU?

Are Women’s Rights And Gender Equality A Reality In The EU?

Are you one of those who still think that in European and other developed countries, women’s human rights are not ­­violated? And, according to the higher values of the European Union and the legal systems of its Member States, do you think it is unlikely that women are not enjoying the full extent of their rights on an equal basis with men?­ Let me tell you that, in that case, you are wrong.

All women in the world live in a patriarchal society. The social organisation system is governed by hierarchical relationships where men have more privileges and, therefore, a superior social, economic and leadership position than women.

Therefore, patriarchy is a characteristic common to all societies, regardless of which one it is, and implies that senior positions in the political, economic, religious and military spheres are occupied exclusively or mostly by men and that women are exposed to situations of domination and even exploitation more frequently.

Many think that the level of violations of women’s rights is different in developed countries than in developing countries. While it is true that the effects and evidence of a patriarchal society may vary, especially from one culture to another, in European countries, patriarchy remains implicit in subtle ways. It interferes in all areas of our life, from education, economy, culture, politics and in our social life.

In the European Union countries, women still face numerous obstacles, from difficulties accessing economic and social resources on equal terms with men to damage their physical and mental integrity. We list below some of the problems frequently faced by women in European and other developed countries:

Gender roles and stereotypes 

Gender roles play an essential role in a patriarchal society, where women are assigned different tasks than men. Women are assigned roles related to caring for the home and family, while men are expected to find paid employment and participate in decision-making bodies easily. Thus, women are subject to stereotypes that condition their behaviour and vital decisions according to how society reacts to them.

The stereotypical image of women in the media

The media influence, more than we think, the way we perceive certain things. The high presence of women’s stereotypical image and gender roles contributes to increasing discrimination against women since these stereotypes tend to be perpetuated rather than modernised in many cases. We observe a clear example in many advertisements, where we will see men sponsoring products related to strength and success, such as cars and sports products. In most cases, it is women who sponsor household cleaning products, furniture, or products to care for the body and the family. Not forgetting the rest of television programs, films or ads in which women are used as mere sexual objects.

Even though currently the media do not use techniques as obviously sexist as they used to, they continue to use subtle techniques that, at first glance, might be difficult to perceive, which hinders criticism from the public and again tends to normalise these stereotypes.

Barriers to access and thrive in the labour market

High unemployment rate

Women are the group most affected by the unemployment rate. The difference between the employment rate of women and men in the European Union is 11.6%, as stated in the Strategy for Gender Equality 2020-2025 in the European Commission’s Communication [1]. The percentage difference is more significant between men and women who lack education, but it is striking that more qualified women are unemployed than men.

Difficulty getting a promotion at work and accessing positions of power

Despite having the necessary aptitudes and attitude to have higher positions, women face more obstacles to get a promotion at work, often due to the difficulty of reconciling personal life with their work. This is partly due to the perpetuation of gender roles (holding women primarily responsible for raising children) and sexual harassment or harassment based on sex in the workplace.

There are very few positions of power held by women, which not only highlights this inequality but also reminds us that we live in a society dominated by patriarchy, where the lesser presence of women in managerial and power positions in the political and economic field makes it more difficult to defend women’s rights and end these injustices.

According to the European Commission Report on the situation of women and men in the European Union as a whole (2019), women constitute around a quarter of non-executive directorships (26.4%), 7.5% of the presidencies of the boards and 7.7% of the executive directorates[2]. We cannot deny that there is still a highly masculinised corporate culture. Only through the greater participation of women in these positions can we fight against these discriminations.

Horizontal and vertical segregation

Traditionally and due to gender, as mentioned above, roles and stereotypes, women have focused on education, health, social services, hospitality, and domestic services (horizontal segregation). This can harm women since they are lower paid sectors than others such as science, engineering, technology, research, or artificial intelligence, with a clear superior male presence, better paid, which prospered more during the pandemic. Likewise, we find a precise concentration of women in specific professional categories (vertical segregation).

For instance, according to research led by Adina Sterling, professor at Standford University[3], there are lower levels of confidence among female engineering students and recent graduates due to gender stereotypes, since they end up perceiving lower salaries for the same work that other male colleagues do, which contributes to the gender pay gap.

Digital and gender pay gap

Even though in recent years, positive actions and measures have been taken to eliminate the gender pay gap -defined by the European Commission as the relative difference that exists in the average gross hourly earnings of men and women in all sectors of the economy-, this discrimination continues to exist in the European Union. Women in the EU earn on average almost 15% less per hour than men[4].

Usually, women have more financial difficulties than men. In some cases, they are not in the labour market and, in some others, they work, but their salary, both direct and indirect, is lower than their male colleagues’ who hold the same position and have the same qualifications. Another factor that affects women significantly is the lower level of training since many of them depend economically on their male relatives or carry out low-skilled “feminised” and part-time jobs, with poor working conditions. This affects their contribution, and in the end, women’s pensions end up being lower than men’s are.

Furthermore, many women continue to suffer inequality in accessing ICTs. Artificial Intelligence has become one of the basic pillars of the economy, so women need to access positions related to this field on equal terms with men.

Double burden and difficulty in reconciling personal, family and work-life

Another obstacle that many women face is taking care of their sons and daughters, the elderly members of the family and housework while they work. This constitutes a barrier to paid employment, carrying out social activities, and correct personal and professional development.

The pandemic caused by Covid-19 has aggravated this situation and has exacerbated the difficulties for women to reconcile family and professional life. It is undeniable that working from home has been an extra effort for those who have to take care of their children and housework simultaneously as they carry out their paid work. Therefore, the pandemic is assuming a setback in the achievements made in terms of equality between women and men.

Gender-based violence (GBV)

Due to our societies’ patriarchal structure, whereby the power relationship between men and women disproportionately favours men, millions of women are victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault around the world. It happens at work, on the street, in sports, in nightclubs and almost anywhere. According to UN Women[5], an estimated 736 million women, almost one in three, have been subjected to intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both at least once in their life (30 per cent of women aged 15 and older). In the case of Europe, where many people have been confined at home with their abusers during the pandemic, the number of women suffering domestic violence has increased significantly[6].

Likewise, women’s sexual and reproductive health -which is tied to multiple human rights such as the right to life, the right to be free from torture, the right to health, the right to privacy, the right to education, and the prohibition of discrimination[7]- is also at risk in our region. There are still six European countries with highly restrictive abortion laws, which do not permit abortion on request or broad social grounds: Andorra, Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, Poland and San Marino[8]. These restrictive laws force women to seek clandestine forms of abortion that seriously harm their physical and mental health. Also, many other women suffer obstetrical and gynaecological violence before and during childbirth, which is often ignored. This violence consists of inappropriate or non-consensual acts carried out by different health professionals, such as episiotomies and vaginal palpation performed without consent, fundal pressure or painful interventions without anaesthetic or sexist behaviours.

Intersectional discrimination

We cannot understand the obstacles women face as uniform and universal; the obstacles that we mentioned above will depend on each woman’s situation. Thus, a woman will be more or less vulnerable than another one according to what privileges she has and in what context she lives. The intersectionality theory explains this, a term coined in 1989 by the academic and professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. The dynamics between coexisting identities (e.g., being a woman, black or trans *) and the systems of oppression (e.g., patriarchy, white supremacy or cisnormativity).

While it is true that the legislation and principles of the European Union are focused on achieving de facto equality between men and women, we cannot affirm or assume that all European women are free from discrimination just for living here. Each woman’s reality is unique and depends on her entire context, which goes far beyond being a woman. Consequently, migrant women, black women, women with functional diversity, LGBT+ women (especially trans* women), poor or elderly women are much more likely to have greater and more numerous obstacles than other women who live in a more advantageous social context. It is essential to strive to understand the reality of each woman.

Equality between men and women is one of the European Union’s primary tasks, and, therefore, it has a legal framework with which all Member States have committed and which they have to respect. This is set out in Article 2 and 3(3) TEU, since the principle of non-discrimination and equality between men and women are fundamental rights set out in Articles 21 and 23, respectively, of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

For its part, as a way of harmonising State measures to combat discrimination against women and being one of the significant advances in inequality in the European Union, the European Institute for Gender Equality was created as a result of Regulation (EC) No. 1922/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council of December 20, 2006. This represented a significant advance towards gender equality since we need measures that promote harmonious coexistence and balanced participation in men and women’s society, which cannot be achieved only through an anti-discrimination policy.

In recent years, due to the Regulation as mentioned above and numerous directives, we have certainly made great strides in terms of equal treatment and opportunities between men and women in the European Union. Other legal instruments have also been helpful, such as Council Directive 79/7/EEC, of December 19, 1978, Council Directive 2010/18/EU, of March 8, 2010, or Directive 2006/54/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council, of July 5, 2006, regarding the application of the principle of equal opportunities and equal treatment between men and women in matters of employment and occupation, among others; without forgetting the fundamental Council of Europe’s Convention of May 11, 2011, on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (commonly known as the Istanbul Convention). Despite these advances in the Union’s legal framework, there is still a long way to go.

To fight against this inequality, in addition to promoting education based on values of equality in the family sphere, we need more positive actions on the part of the States. We need changes in the educational system to achieve a non-sexist education based on equality and the inclusion of a non-sexist language and more control over women’s image in the media. Also, it is necessary to adopt measures to guarantee the application of the principle of equality and to help improve the reconciliation between personal and family life, as well as to create more effective laws on equality, which defend and guarantee the human rights of all women.