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EU women on a slow road to employment


Women in a working environment

Women in the European Union face obstacles in the work market despite the European Commissions ambitious plan to increase employment by 2020.

By Susanne Sundbye


As a part of a strategy put forth by the European Commission titled the Europe 2020 Strategy, growth from 69 to 75 per cent in the labour market is a key factor to save Europe from the economic crisis. There are three target groups that the strategy aims to employ by 2020: the youth, the elderly and women. But when it comes to female employment, there are a number of things that must change in order for the plan to achieve its goals.

Statistics from Eurostat show that there is an immense difference in the percentage of women hired throughout the European Union. Denmark for example, are in the lead with 75 per cent of women in the labour market, while southern countries such as Spain lag way behind with a mere 45 per cent of female employment.

Insufficient childcare systems

One of the main problems women face is the lack of childcare centres and their early closing times. The amount of care differs between the different Member States. In Denmark, the childcare system is government supported, open at a reasonable time in relation to work hours and children from as young as 8 months are taken care of. This gives Danish women an advantage on the labour market compared to women in countries such as Germany, where childcare is only available privately and closes as early as 2 o‘clock.

An article by Henau, Meulders and O’Dorchai concludes that “not even the most highly educated mothers can cope.”


Not enough parental leave

Another issue that women with children face, which decreases the number of women in the labour market and their possibilities, is the under developed parental leave systems. With only four months in the United Kingdom and Ireland mothers are not granted enough time with their children before having to go back to work. Combined with the lack of day care centres and having to leave their babies so early, this is not a favourable option and results in women staying at home to take care of their children.

Member of European Parliament (MEP) Mikael Gustafsson and Chairman of FEMM Women’s Rights Committee said,

“We need to address an equal share of parental leave. Personally I would prefer 50/50.”

He says the Icelandic system is a good one to follow.

The Icelandic system developed in 2000 extended the parental leave from six months to nine months, where six of the months had to be shared equally between the parents, and the remaining three months were left to the parents to decide.

“Many argue that this reform 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.” Mr Gustafsson emphasised.

Gender Pay Gap decreases motivation

In 2011, it was reported that gender pay gap in all European member states shows that women are still getting paid significantly less than men, making 17.5 per cent less than men in wages.

MEP and Commissioner of Justice Viviane Reding’s spokesman, Matthew Newman said that the gender pay gap prevents women from entering the labour market.

“A salary not in keeping with their skills and experience discourages women from entering or staying in the labour market, making the labour market smaller and less efficient than what would be optimal.”


With an ageing population and falling birth rates, the problem increases at an alarming rate. Mr Newman said a better use of women’s skills allows Europe to confront global competition.


Alleged stereotyping “a blame game”.

Even now in such a modern age, stereotypes still linger in work atmospheres throughout Europe, even in the Nordic countries where female employment is among the highest in Europe.

Finnish MEP Sirpa Pietikäinen, who is also a member of the FEMM Committee explained the stereotyping up north as a “blame game for women” and there continues to be a prejudice assumption that “women should have more guts”, she calls this unintentional discrimination.

Mr Gustafsson believes that the real barrier for gender equality is a socio-cultural one, caused by stereotyping. A way around this would be to educate people from the very beginning.

“We need to start very young on this. It starts in the family, at school and university.”


How the EU is tackling the problem

The Europe 2020 Strategy was put forth by the European Commission. It is their responsibility to monitor the member states during the decade in which the goals are to be achieved.

The strategy that was made in 2010 however, has so far failed in its goal to have more women on the labour market. The Annual Growth Survey (AGS) has kept track of the development in the member states and in their report of changes it said the outcome was disappointing.

However, the issue is to be handled by each member state individually. In June, after having evaluated the progress in each of the member states, the European Commission will give out country specific recommendations, with the intention of guiding them in the right direction.

Mette Verner, Research Director in Economics at the Danish School of Media and Journalism, believes that intervention should be left to each member state, as the conditions in each country defer from one another.

Ideas too ambitious?

On a legislative level, another approach has been suggested. During a recent plenary session in the European Parliament regarding the gender quotas on boards, numerous MEP’s indicated that a solution would be to have more women on boards and in policy making decisions. They said with more women on boards, the possibility for hiring women would increase.

MEP and member of FEMM, Britta Thomsen said “if we want 75% increase in women then we need to employ more women and get a stronger strategy for them.”