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EU Belgian Presidency conference on closing the gender pay gap in the EU


The average hourly pay gap between women and men remains at 18% within the European Union and, on an annual basis at 24%, according to a European Report released by the Belgian presidency of the EU. A conference organised by the Belgian presidency of the EU looked into the reasons for the pay gap and what could be done to reduce it. The event, entitled ‘How to close the Gender Pay Gap?’ was held in Brussels on 25 and 26 October 2010. It brought together representatives from EU Member States, the EU institutions, gender equality bodies, social partner organisations, civil society and the academic world.

European Commission/European Parliament perspectives on the pay gap issue

In the opening session, Xavier Prats Monne, the European Commission’s Director for employment policy, suggested shifting the emphasis of arguments for reducing the pay gap when discussing the issue with policy-makers. He suggested shifting the emphasis from making the ‘fairness’ argument to making the economic case for gender equality. His argument is that women provide a major source of human capital that companies can draw on.

Eva-Britt Svensson, the chair of the European Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality committee, gave a presentation about a European Parliament resolution in 2008. One of the recommendations in the resolution was for equality promotion and monitoring bodies to play a greater role in reducing the gender pay gap, including by giving them legal powers to bring wage discrimination cases to court.

Panel on EU member states’ strategies

Finland, the UK, France and Sweden gave presentations on what they were doing to reduce the pay gap. Dr Helen Carrier, Chief Economist of the UK’s Government Equalities Office, said that the UK’s approach was increasingly focused on non-legislative and behavioural change. In terms of work-life balance, the UK wants “to encourage shared parenting from the earliest stages of pregnancy, including the promotion of a system of flexible parental leave” and “to support the provision of free nursery care for pre-school children”. She also said that it was important “to look at what happens in the home and who looks after the children as this is an important driver of the pay gap”.

Mari-Elia McAteer from the Finnish Ministry of Social Affairs and Health’s Equality Unit gave a presentation on the Finnish government’s efforts to reduce the pay gap to 15% by 2015 through its Equal Pay Programme. Although the pay gap has come down, she said that the 15% target would probably be reached only by 2022.

Elisabeth Tome-Gertheinrichs from France’s Ministry of Labour, Solidarity and Civil Service, gave a presentation about an initiative under which private companies have until December 2010 to set out measures to eliminate the pay gap. More broadly, France’s approach is to deal with the pay gap together with the broader problem of professional and vocational equality.

Ulrika Johansson, who works at the Swedish Equality Ombudsman, gave a presentation about the Ombudsman’s oversight of a scheme under which companies have to carry out pay surveys every three years. If an employer refuses to carry out a pay survey, the Ombudsman can apply for a default fine order. Johansson said that this had been an effective threat.

Challenging gender stereotypes

Anu Sajavaara from the Confederation of Finnish Industries highlighted the problem of ‘horizontal segregation’, whereby women (and men) are concentrated in sectors which are traditionally associated with gender, such as engineering jobs for men or secretarial jobs for women. She indicated that segregation may be one of the reasons for the gender pay gap. She said that young people are given very little information about working life and that more needs to be done to give them educational and career advice during their education. “We need to build bridges between the educational authorities and the business world,” she said. She also suggested challenging gender stereotypes by coming up with inspiring role models, a point echoed by Liliane Volozinskis from UEAPME, the European association of SMEs.

During the conference, it emerged that, broadly speaking, member states'' efforts have not achieved a great deal in reducing the pay gap. Ms Sajavaara hinted at this when she said that there had been “a lot of investment and little achievement” and that Finland’s efforts to dismantle ‘horizontal segregation’ had not worked. Ms Volozinskis added that “everything has been tried. The real blockage is a cultural one. It is because of stereotyping. We need to start very young on this. It starts in the family, at school and university”.

Arni Hole, Head of Norway’s Department of Family and Equality, also stressed the need to challenge stereotypes. In her view, the mindset should be changed from “men are helping out [in the home]” to “men are sharing [in the home]”. She also argued that early childcare for everyone who wants it should be a “public responsibility”.

Ms Hole also pointed out that many women paid to look after children are in a precarious employment situation. “We need to fight to turn this work into a real skilled profession that men will want to do too”, she said.

More equal share of parental leave between mother and father

The last session was devoted to presentations of good national practices to reduce the pay gap. Dr Ingolfur Gislason, a Professor in Sociology at Iceland University, gave a presentation about Iceland’s use of parental leave by fathers.

The Icelandic Act on Maternity/Paternity and Parental Leave was reformed in 2000. Parental leave was extended from six months to nine months. Three of these months have to be used by the mother and three months by the father. It is up to the parents to decide how to divide up the remaining three months. This has led to “a closer relationship between fathers and children and a greater understanding of men about how much work there is to do to look after children”, according to Dr Gislason.

Call for more childcare facilities

Concluding the conference, Belgium’s Minister for Employment and Equal Opportunities, Joelle Milquet, set out a series of areas for discussion at a meeting of EU employment, social protection, consumer protection, health and equal opportunities ministers (EPSCO) in December. She pointed to increasing the employment rate of women, reducing the pay gap and strengthening the qualifications of women as overriding aims.

She also stressed the importance of fighting gender stereotypes and the issue of ‘horizontal segregation’. With regard to child daycare services, she said that “the Barcelona targets are still topical and need to be strengthened if we want to help women access jobs and balance their working and professional lives”.

For further information

The Belgian EU Presidency’s write-up of the conference