Despite legislation, progress remains slow for women receiving equal pay

In light of women’s day, the European Parliament (EP) is focusing its attention on the 17.5% pay gap that still remains persistently stubborn among all European member states, despite equal pay legislation.

Hanna Fillingham

A recent parliamentary report on equality between men and women in the EU, stated that despite many campaigns and measures, there has only been a marginal reduction in the gender pay gap in the last few years.

There are many reasons causing this pay gap to remain. Mikael Gustafsson, Chair of women’s rights and equality FEMM, stated that “the real barrier for equality in pay is a socio-cultural one”. It is because of stereotyping whereby women and men are concentrated in gender specific sectors. He stated that in order to solve this, “we need to start teaching this at a young age, in the family, at school and university”.  Gustafsson says parental leave is another reason, as well as consistent pay secrecy.

Danish politician and MEP Britta Thomsen believes that tradition is another obstacle. “Women are valued less than men and we pay less for less value, therefore women have to fight for equality”.

Parliament wants tougher Legislative acts

All EU member states follow a body of legislation that was combined into a single directive in 2006 (the first legislation on equal pay was introduced 50 years ago). The directive aims to ensure that men and women receive equal pay for work of equal value. Nonetheless, research from the EU in 2010 and the OECD in 2008 confirms that there is still a gender pay gap in every EU member state.

Matthew Newman, spokesperson to Viviane Reding, Commissioner of Justice, states that although these rules make it easier for victims of discrimination to enforce their rights in courts, the persisting gender pay gap shows that it remains a constant challenge to apply and enforce the existing rules effectively. The multiple causes of the gender pay gap require the efforts of all Member States, social partners and all stakeholders. “We have to work together to promote equal pay for women and men”.

It was evident in a recent debate on gender equality in the EP that tougher legislative acts were favourable. Among those rooting for tighter legislation was Antonia Parvanovia, Vice-President of the Alliance of the Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). Parvanovia spoke of how women have to work two months more to receive the same payment as men and that if member states are failing, then it should be up to the EU to intervene and tackle the issue.

Gustafsson stated that it is necessary to take a look at the existing legislation and see why it is so less effective in comparison with other fields. “I believe we should make legislation more effective and impose sanctions when needed, because without any sanctions it will not work”.

Citizens also believe in tighter legislation

In connection with International Women’s Day, the EP asked one of the world’s leading market research companies TNS to carry out a telephone survey. Action was very much in favour among citizens with 47% of Europeans in favour of action at EU level, 38% of action at national level and 11% of action at local or regional level. This was conducted on 19 and 20 January 2012 among 25 539 European citizens in the 27 EU Member States, many of the questions focusing on the pay gap.

Legislation works in Sweden

Although the pay gap is existing in all countries, the latest statistics from Eurostat shows the highest proportion of female low-wage earners were in Cyprus, Latvia, the United Kingdom and Lithuania (more than 30% in each of these countries). The proportion was the lowest in Finland, France, Denmark, Belgium, Malta and Sweden (less than 15%).

Sweden remains to be one of the leading countries at tackling this issue. They have strong legislation on gender pay, a good welfare system (women can go to work, the society takes care of children, elderly, ill persons etc) and obligation to transparency in pay.

The success of Sweden has been used to help reinforce movement in other EU countries. At a recent EP workshop focusing on equal pay for equal work, Thomsen spoke that one of the outcomes was to start studying some of the enterprises and tools being used there.

The U.K remains to be one of the slower member states at tightening the pay gap. Matthew Grant, equal pay expert from the U.K believes that this is because of the pay secrecy. “Unless people know they are being underpaid there is little risk of action, and thus little prospect of change. In professional circles there are many unwritten rules of pay secrecy and these barriers need to be broken down”.

What is currently being done

Despite the evident success of legislative enforcement in Sweden and certain other EU countries (France and Spain) , tighter legislation for equal pay remains a slow process. Currently, further awareness based actions are being instigated. Newman spoke of the commission’s currents movements.

“Our actions at European level can contribute to highlighting the importance of equal pay. Equal pay for equal work and work of equal value is one of the five top priorities of the Strategy for equality between women and men for 2010-2015”.

The commission has carried out awareness-raising actions, such as the European Equal Pay and have just started a project to raise awareness on gender equality and equal pay in companies. In the framework of this project, they will offer training to companies on the “business case” for gender equality and on practical ways to address the gender pay gap. They will also support equal pay initiatives in the workplace such as equality labels, ‘charters’, and awards, as well as developing tools for employers to correct unjustified gender pay gaps. Encouraging women to enter non-traditional professions is also on the agenda.

 The future 

Sophia in’t Veld’s report on equality between women and men in the European Union – 2011, called for the European institutions, member states and the social partners to break down the diverse range of causes for this persistent gap, including a European Eula pay target to reduce the pay gap by 10% in each member state.

There is hope that slow and steady progress will be made, but it seems that unless something more prominent like stronger legislation is implemented, the pay gap will continue to decrease at a slow rate.


The FEMM committee root for further legislative acts, lead by chairman Mikael Gustafsson

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