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Tackling the pay gap between men and women

The pay gap between men and women in the European Union continues to exist. To a large extent, the gap cannot be attributed to objective criteria. Tackling the pay gap is a major challenge for a modern, competitive Europe confronting demographic change (synonymous with the expected decline in the working population). That pay gap is by no means merely symbolic. It is in this context that the Commission has examined the causes of the pay gap, is putting forward a number of ways of reducing it and is calling upon all interested parties to harness their efforts in tackling it.

ACT

Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions of 18 July 2007, entitled ‘Tackling the pay gap between women and men’ [COM(2007) 424 final ‒ Not published in the Official Journal].

SUMMARY

The principle of equal pay for men and women has been a part of the Treaty of Rome since 1957. Article 157 of the Treaty stipulates that the Member States must ensure that the principle of equal pay for equal work or work of equal value is applied. Furthermore, reducing the pay gap is one of the objectives of the European Strategy for Growth and Jobs.

In practice, the situation is still problematic. As pointed out in the Roadmap for equality between women and men, the pay gap has remained practically unchanged over the last ten years, despite the measures and means implemented in tackling it. According to official figures, in 2005 women earned on average 15 % less than men at European Union level, i.e. an improvement of only two percentage points compared with the 1995 level and in marked contrast to the considerable increase in the female employment rate.

The majority of the causes linked to this gap cannot be attributed to objective criteria. Women achieve a higher pass-rate at school and account for the majority of graduates in all the Member States. Why, therefore, do they not achieve better conditions on the labour market and why is their productive potential not fully exploited?

The European Commission alone cannot tackle the pay gap. For that reason, the efforts of all the interested parties will have to be harnessed, beginning with the Member States and the social partners, which together hold most of the power to make decisions and take action.

A complex and persistent problem

 Differences in pay can be explained by a series of objective criteria:

  • individual characteristics (age, level of education, experience acquired);
  • factors connected with the job (profession, type of contract or working conditions);
  • aspects directly linked to the company (economic sector, size).

There may also be instances of open discrimination in which a woman receives less pay than her male colleague for the same job.

However, objective differences and discriminatory practices are not enough in themselves to explain why a pay gap still exists.

On the other hand, the pay gap may also reflect inequalities linked to the labour market. Such inequalities affect mainly women and include:

  • horizontal segregation of the labour market: women are concentrated in a much smaller number of sectors and professions than men, and these sectors and professions are generally less highly valued and less well paid;
  • vertical segregation of the labour market: women are employed mainly in less well-paid jobs and encounter greater obstacles to their professional advancement (only one third of women in companies within the EU);
  • traditions and stereotypes: these influence particularly the choice of education courses, the evaluation and classification of professions and also employment patterns;
  • the difficulty of balancing work and private life, which often, for women, leads to part-time working and career breaks, with a negative effect on women’s careers.

Statistics show that the pay gap increases with age, the level of educational attainment and length of service: wage differences exceed 30 % in the 50 to 59 age bracket (as opposed to 7 % in those under 30) and exceed 30 % amongst graduates, but are only 13 % amongst workers who have completed their secondary school studies. Lastly, they may stand as high as 32 % amongst workers with more than 30 years’ experience in a company, whereas the pay gap is only 22 % amongst workers with between 1 and 5 years’ service.

Tackling the inequality in pay between women and men

In order effectively to help reduce the pay gap, the Commission is drawing attention to the following measures:

  • improved application of existing legislation, accompanied by awareness-raising campaigns;
  • fully exploiting the European Strategy for Growth and Jobs, particularly via European financial support in all its forms (Structural Funds);
  • promoting wage equality amongst employers, essentially appealing to their sense of social responsibility;
  • supporting the exchange of good practices at Community level and involving the social partners in that process.

Background

The elimination of the gender pay gap is a core element of European policy on gender equality. It is included in the majority of instruments implemented at European level:

  • the Roadmap for equality between women and men (2006-2010);
  • the European Strategy for Growth and Jobs;
  • the European Pact for Gender Equality;
  • the Structural Funds;
  • annual reports published by the Commission since 2004.
Key terms used in the act
  • Pay gap: The pay gap measures the relative difference in the average gross hourly earnings of women and men within the economy as a whole. It is one of the structural indicators used to monitor the European Strategy for Growth and Jobs.
Last updated: 23.05.2011
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