The Potential of Gender Equality in the Workplace: Why we still need to fight for equal rights

Since the first women started to protest for their emanzipation, a lot has been achieved in terms of gender equality. But there is still a long way to go to reach true equality. Why fighting for equal rights is important to build a future world of opportunity, wealth and innovation and what the EU is doing to achieve this goal.

Several decades have passed since women first started demonstrating and using social movements to claim their rights as equal members of societies, citizens, but most importantly, as human beings. Today we celebrate International Women’s Day and more specifically the historical, cultural and political achievements of women.

The very date of the 8th of March was chosen by the feminist movement in the United States in the first half of the 19th century as a day of remembrance and celebration of the demonstrations carried out by women in Soviet Russia in 1917. As a result of these demonstrations, women gained suffrage in Soviet Russia in March 1917.

This very day, designated as an official United Nations observance since 1975, reminds us of a time in which women could not participate in political life, a time in which the goals reached today in the quest for equality seemed like a very distant and blurry dream.

A lot still remains to be done

Notwithstanding the battles won and the countless examples of empowering women fighting for their rights both in further and more recent past, this day - as unfortunately many other days in women’s lives - also reminds us that there is still much to achieve in terms of equality in our societies.

One important, if not vital, environment in which gender inequalities are still very much present is the workplace. Research shows that in the European Union, two decades into the 21st century, inequality (more generally in labour markets and employment, and more specifically, at work) is still stubbornly present. Eurofund conducted intensive research in 2020 and analysed inequality in market segmentation, gender pay gaps, but also within working conditions and job quality.

The latter category not only takes into consideration how much workers earn but also considers other dimensions like the physical and social environment they work in, the work intensity, and the quality of future prospects. These additional dimensions are vital when looking at the current situation of gender inequality at work.

Key findings show a lower job quality for women

Key findings of this Eurofund report underline that many dimensions of job quality are worse for women. Also, career prospects seem to be better overall for men. Moreover, the report "goes beyond the gender pay gap by analysing issues such as fair pay, variable forms of pay and whether workers can ‘make ends meet’. Even in senior positions, women are more likely to report being unfairly paid. Forms of payment such as company shares or performance-based payments are becoming more common, but the gender gap is widening to the detriment of women”.

Gender shares in managerial positions are still a long way from parity. The percentage of female managers has been increasing since 2005, “although the majority of men and half of women still have an immediate manager of the same gender”, even if individuals under female managers reported better management quality. Last, but not least, even if only one quarter of the workforce is in mixed occupations, these seem to display better job quality overall and a smaller gender gap between the workers.

These key findings already say quite a lot about the current situation. However, it is worth mentioning that the same report also gives more specific insights: For example, it has also shown that, even though female employment has increased in the last two decades, male employment rates are higher than female rates in all Member States, but most importantly, while being more employed, women still represent more than three-quarters of part-time workers in the EU.

Job security is another issue for women

Going more into depth with regard to the job security issue, it has also been reported that a higher percentage of women than men are employed with indefinite contracts. Moreover, when looking at working time quality, the data reports that female workers report better working time quality because female workers seem to still put on their shoulders a greater share of the burden associated with domestic work and care, and, as a result, they might work less or in more predictable hours.

When looking at the social environment, adverse social behaviour is reported by more women than men, specifically by young women under 35. Additionally, as of today, career prospects and employability scores are better for men. This means not only that men are better off in terms of finding a job, but also in terms of maintaining it, getting promoted, and getting further.

On top of that, looking at earnings, the report shows that not only did the pay gap remain at around 16% in the EU, but also that women are always more likely to be in the lower income quintiles. Considering this status quo, we notice that there is still quite a lot to work to do within the EU in order to achieve gender equality at work. How has the EU worked to tackle these issues of current inequality? And what is the journey ahead?

Role of the EU - the will to improve gender equality at work

“Fighting inequalities and guaranteeing equal treatment and equal opportunities for women and men in labour markets and at work has been a long-standing policy of European institutions. Since its inception in 1957, the European Union has promoted the ‘equal pay for equal work’ principle (Article 157 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union), the absence of sex discrimination, both within and outside the workplace (Article 19) and equality between men and women (Articles 2 and 3(3))” (Eurofound Research Report, 2020).

European Institutions claim to have a big role in the fight for gender equality and, of course, this includes gender equality at work. The specific report cited above was indeed the result of a research project founded by the EU itself. Research on the issue can be considered the first important step to tackle the issue itself.

This is of vital importance if we consider that, as mentioned in the quote above, guaranteeing equal treatment and opportunities at work is one of the core values of the EU - linked to the more general value of the respect of human rights. Women’s rights are human rights.

More specifically, the European Parliament has defined itself as “very active on achieving equality between men and women”. The EP has a standing committee dedicated to women’s rights and gender equality. When looking more specifically at working time quality and employment rate, in 2019, the EU approved new rules on family and care-related leave and more adaptable working conditions, to create more incentives for fathers to take family-related leave and to increase women’s employment rate.

The EU’s Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025

More specifically, according to EU sources, EU legislation on gender equality in the work place focuses on rules on employment, where we find equal pay, social security, working conditions and sexual harassment and, as previously mentioned, rights to maternity, paternity and parental leave.

Most importantly, 2020 was the year of the publication of the Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 by the European Commission. Watching a woman become the president of the European Commission at the end of 2019 was without doubt an empowering experience, however, since data shows that much still has to be achieved to ensure gender equality and consequently the respect of women’s rights at work, the strategy was certainly welcomed by most.

What exactly does this strategy aim to tackle and why? The strategy primary aim is to set out the policy objectives and key actions for the 2020-2025 period. It is important to underline that the strategy is “based on the dual approach of targeted measures to achieve gender equality, combined with strengthened gender mainstreaming”.

About gender mainstreaming

This second approach is particularly interesting and new, since it shows that “[t]he Commission will enhance gender mainstreaming by systematically including a gender perspective in all stages of policy design in all EU policy areas, internal and external”.

More specifically, looking at equality at work the strategy underlines the target to create a gender-equal economy. On employability, the strategy presents the plan of a Work-Life-Balance Directive which “introduces minimum standards for family leave and flexible working arrangements for workers, and promotes equal sharing of caring responsibilities between parents”.

Moreover it adds that “the Commission will ensure that Member States correctly transpose and implement this directive”. On empowering women in the labour market as investors and entrepreneurs, professions that have been male dominated, “targeted measures promoting the participation of women in innovation will be developed under the Horizon Europe European Innovation Council” . To achieve equal participation across different sectors of the economy, the strategy underlines the importance of the Updated Skills Agenda for Europe.

A plan to solve the gender pay gap issue

Finally, on the gender pay gap issue, the strategy highlights that the Commission “together with the adoption of this strategy [...] is launching a wide-ranging and inclusive consultation process with the public, the Member States and the social partners”. It also adds that “the Commission will re-launch the discussion with the social partners [...] to encourage them to intensify efforts in addressing the gender employment and pay gaps”.

Looking at the strategy, we notice that most of the issues we could find in the report are addressed in the strategy itself, with a specific plan of 5 years. Given the novelty of the strategy, we cannot yet assess its effectiveness. However, it is worth highlighting the importance of these targets for the future. Several sources and studies show us the crucial importance of equality at work to ensure a prosperous future.

Why does the status quo need to change?

According to the Gender Equality Strategy 2020, “[a] prosperous and social Europe depends on us all. Women and men in all their diversity should have equal opportunities to thrive and be economically independent, be paid equally for their work of equal value, have equal access to finance and receive fair pensions”.

European Institutions are working hard in order to promote equality at work. The reason behind this is two-fold: firstly, there is the normative aspect of this goal - namely ensuring that European values and norms are respected.

Indeed, the European Union’s fundamental values are: Respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law. The EU discourse underlines that these values unite all the member states and that no country that does not recognise these values can belong to the Union.

Secondly, equality at work is proven to bring innovation and opportunity. As a result of several studies recently carried out, it seems that building a culture of equality is not just an ethical imperative, but a priority as a culture of equality in the workplace acts as a powerful catalyst to enhance innovation.

Equality means innovation: the potential of new perspectives

Furthermore, Eurofund research has shown that occupations that have better job quality in most of their dimensions and where there is a higher degree of gender equality are mixed occupations. This means that where there is more representation, there is also more equality and quality.

Adding on this, recent research by Accenture has proven a culture of equality to be “a powerful multiplier of innovation and growth”. As Accenture calculated, “global gross domestic product would increase by up to US$8 trillion by 2028 if innovation mindset in all countries were raised by 10 percent”.

The stakes are therefore enormous when we talk about creating a culture that drives innovation. Research carried out by and for the European Institutions similarly shows that “Increasing women’s participation in the labour market has a strong, positive impact on the economy, notably in the context of a shrinking workforce and skills shortages”.

The confidence gap is another obstacle

Culture at the workplace can be the reflection of culture in our societies. Decades of oppression have raised women that have a critical gap in confidence compared to men, as several studies have shown. More specifically, women frequently express that they do not feel they deserve their job and are “imposters” a phenomenon known as imposter syndrome.

Moreover, it appears that women worry more about being disliked, appearing unattractive, outshining others, or grabbing too much attention. It is clear that policies and strategies that would tackle gender inequality at work are needed to build an innovative and prosperous future. It is also clear that there is a need to empower women to shape their own lives, play a role in public life and be economically independent.

The confidence gap between women and men can also pose a threat to equality and diversity at work, since the lack of confidence and the imposter syndrome that affects women more than men also hinder the potential of women at work.

Empowering women should be a top priority

A quote by Whitney Wolfe Herd, founder and CEO of Bumble, partially summarizes this great confidence gap: “When women fight for a higher salary, they can often feel guilty. When men fight for more pay, they feel empowered. I've always wanted to encourage women to go after the money they deserve”.

That is why empowering women today should be at the top of our societies’ agenda. Much has been achieved recently and important public figures have also contributed in representing women and encouraging them to reach their full potential.

Quoting Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission: “We should not be shy about being proud of where we are or ambitious about where we want to go”. The sole existence of women like Ursula or Whitney empowers women everyday, not only by representing them, but by displaying that women can be the President of the European Commission or the CEO of a company, and there is nothing that can potentially stop a woman from doing so.

How organizations work to empower women

The increasing presence of women working in positions generally occupied by men can have a great impact on women in the European Union and worldwide. Several organizations worldwide have also started the journey towards women empowerment, seeing it as critical in building women’s confidence after a long history of misogyny and sexism that has affected the way women perceive themselves.

Empowering women at the workplace is one of the main goals, amongst others, of the non-profit organization Unleash Today. Unleash Today was launched at the in mid-2019, out of the need to offer guidance to young female graduates that were dealing with the job market after years of studying.

Empowering young women to unleash their full potential in the workplace, and in society more generally, Unleash Today wants to make up for the lack of support and confidence that women are confronted with, especially when young and trying to fit in a system that was mostly built by men and for men to succeed.

These initiatives can have a real impact in making a change in how women perceive themselves and, therefore, also in the path towards equality at work and in innovation. Giving women the opportunity is not always enough. Since social constructs are sticky a deeper kind of empowerment is necessary to make women realise that they are worthy of, and deserve the opportunities they are given. Empowering women is a key aspect in the journey towards equality at work and therefore to a future of innovation and growth.

This comment was written by Anna Marino, social media expert at Unleash Today.


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