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Women in Europe – do they have equal rights or not?

by Birgit Erbe

On the face of things, the situation for women seems to have improved over the last years and decades. Birgit Erbe has taken a closer look to reveal not only the severe differences within the individual countries, but also the often precarious situation for women in Europe.

The press releases from the European Commission on each eighth of March prove highly similar each year: much has been achieved on the path to equal rights for women and men, but more effort is required in many areas.

Photo: iStockphoto

The report by Eurostat on International Women' Day was rather confusing: "the life expectancy of women in all member states is expected to be over 80 years by 2050”; and then the worrying announcement for men that, currently, their average lifetime is six years less; in fact, in Lithuania and Latvia, 12 years less. Does the longer lifetime of women balance out the remaining disadvantages also mentioned by Eurostat of higher redundancy rates, lower employment rates, more often temporary occupations for women in comparison to men? Of course, the European Statistical Office is simply delivering data describing the respective situations for men and women – without any further evaluation. So we have to look in more detail ourselves.

First of all, a geographical limitation: the data used here refer to the European Union and therefore do not show Europe in its entirety. It must also be noted that, in spite of the 27 member states in the European Union having much in common, each of them has their own specific characteristics, and therefore its own history on women's emancipation, too. Think of such differing countries as Portugal, right in the West; Poland in the East of the Union, Finland up at the top in the North or Cyprus in the South.

Equal opportunities for women and men is a contractual principle and therefore a condition for membership of the European Union. Based on a seemingly insignificant Article 119 in the articles of agreement (Roman Treaties) from 1957, in which salary equality for men and women was standardised, a comprehensive set of legislations was created which regulated equal rights in the field of employment and social security for all EU members. In 2004, a directive was passed for the first time extending the gender discrimination prohibition to the supply of goods and services, which, for example, concerns different insurance tariffs or the price for a haircut.

The national implementation of these directives, however, still represents a barrier. Directives are implemented only sluggishly and partially not to their full extent. In addition, a systematic inspection of existing laws and regulations should have been included as the legal position was altered. The amount of European Court of Justice convictions shows that laws often have to be secured in court because the national authorities have not acted. This is true for both old and new member states. Recently, the European Commission as "guardian of the treaties” warned the German government that the implementation of the anti-discrimination directives in the German General Law for Equal Rights was insufficient. This law was first passed in 2006 after years of debating, after the European Commission had threatened with penal fines amounting to 900,000 Euros daily.

So what is the real situation for equal rights? An important indicator of this are the political and social involvement possibilities for women. Let's take the example of politics and the representation of women in the national Parliaments; here we find that women are under-represented in all countries (the average involvement in 2006 was 24 percent); however, with clear graduations, as can be read in the Report on Equal Rights for Women and Men in the European Union 2007. In Germany, Austria, Spain and Belgium, the proportion of women is over 30 percent; in Sweden, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands, the proportion in the Parliaments is in fact 40 percent. At the other end of the scale are Greece, France, Slovenia, Ireland and Romania, whose percentage of women lies below 15 percent, which is only underrun by Malta and Hungary with not even 10 percent.

In the economy, the distribution looks very different. The proportion of women in management positions is, for the entire EU, 32 percent (2005), which is also far higher than in politics. The top countries here are, with over 35 percent women, the Baltic countries (Latvia 44 percent!) and France. If only the highest management levels in economy are taken, however, the EU average is only 10 percent women. Only around 12 percent women were found in the management of the 50 largest companies listed on the stock exchange in Germany in 2005, bringing Germany into eighth position in the EU ranking.

In education, girls and young women are more successful than boys and young men in almost all EU countries. More women begin courses at University (in 2003, this proportion lay at 54 percent EU-wide) and they are even more successful in their final degrees (59 percent). In the higher levels of academic careers, however, the numbers of women decrease severely. In 2004, they provided 39 percent of those earning a doctorate (in the EU average, this is 43 percent), received nearly 23 percent of all postdoctoral lecture qualifications and held 9 percent of the professorships (EU-wide 15 percent) (see She Figures 2006).

The situation for women in the employment market and therefore their economic participations is much more unfavourable than that of the men. Women's employment rates lay in the 2005 EU average at 56.3 percent; and men's at 71.3 percent. The national differences here are remarkable. The highest labour force participation rate is in Denmark and Sweden with over 70 percent. The Netherlands, too, have a high rate of 67.5 percent, but are top in the league for part-time employment: 75 percent of the women there work part-time. Germany takes second place with 46 percent. The lowest labour force participation rate for women on the employment market can be found in Greece and Poland at below 48 percent, and finally, far below that, Malta at just under 35 percent. Women in Greece and Spain are particularly hard hit by unemployment, and women are two to two and a half times as often unemployed as men. The average unemployment rate for women is, as EU average, just 2 percent above that of men (8.5 in contrast to 6.7 percent, January 2007).

In spite of women's high qualifications, they often find themselves in lower positions and less well-paid jobs in comparison to men. In spite of similar demands on qualifications, the wages for typical women's jobs are lower than in typical man's jobs in several countries. Those women in education thereby receive lower wages than a car mechanic, and nurses earn less than police men and women. 40 percent of female employees work in health jobs, in the fields of upbringing and education, or in trade and sales. In contrast, only 20 percent of men work in such jobs. Women earn 15 percent less than men EU-wide. The wage-difference is particularly apparent in the groups of older female workers. Women of between 50 and 59 earned 33 percent less than men of the same age in 2005. Germany belongs to the member states with particularly high wage discrimination (22 percent) whereas France is better than the EU average with its 12 percent.

It is noticeable that the employment rate for women of between 20 and 49 reduces by 15 percent when they have children, whereas the rate for men increases by 6 percent. This corresponds with a European time consumption trial from 2004, which showed that women of 20 to 74 years of age use almost 4 hours daily on average for housework, whereas men only use slightly more than two hours. In all the countries which were inspected, men had more fee time than women.

The disadvantaged situation for women on the employment market leads to a higher risk of poverty for women. 15 percent of women in comparison to 13 percent of men EU-wide are at risk of poverty – even after receiving social services. Unemployment is a particular poverty risk for women, which ends more often than for men with exclusion from the job market, the status as single parent, living alone in old age or belonging to an ethnic minority or being a migrant. Apart from this, the fact that women do far more unpaid care and educational work and are therefore less integrated into the job market, thus giving them lower demands as far as pensions are concerned, also adds to the increased risk of poverty. With the exception of Slovakia, it is therefore far more probable in all EU countries for older women to be living in poverty in spite of social services than for men (20 percent to 15 percent).

Violence against women is the most fundamental and most widespread infringement of human rights for women. According to estimates made by the European Women's Lobby, 45 percent of all women in Europe have already suffered under violence perpetrated by men. The group of female experts for the European Commission, "Gender, Social Inclusion and Employment" has reached the conclusion that there are a high number of unreported cases far above the cases of domestic violence, human trade and forced prostitution which are filed. For example, the British Government estimates that between 2000 and 2001, there were 15.4 million cases of domestic violence in Great Britain, of which 84 percent were directed against women; and that every week two women died due to domestic violence. Domestic violence occurs in every social class. About one quarter to half a million women and children become victims of human trafficking each year in Europe. The countries of origin are central Eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America, yet the richest EU member states are the main target countries.

When evaluating the situation of women, not all countries can be lumped together, as the statistical differences are too large. However, the numbers do allow us to evaluate that we are dealing with a structural discrimination of women Europe-wide, since, with the exception of education success and final degree marks; women have no advantage over men in any EU country. Excepting, of course, their lifetime.

Birgit Erbe
Birgit Erbe is the Manager of the Frauenakademie in Munich. Her key activities are: the European Integration Process, Gender Budgeting and Women's Rights and numerous ...
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