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Bringing gender equality to Europe

6 September Sep 2016 1321 06 September 2016
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Joanna Maycock, Secretary General of the European Women's Lobby (EWL), talks to Vita International about feminisms, Beyoncé and why compliance and austerity are the worst enemies of gender equality

Joanna Maycock, Secretary General of the European Women's Lobby discusses the biggest challenges for gender equality in Europe and why having more women in leadership positions could reshape the global economy and the way we work.

What are the biggest challenges for the advancement of women's rights at the moment?

In the last 100 years we have seen absolute revolutions in women's rights, and women's rights in Europe particularly. The women's movement in its various forms has been absolutely central to that. If you look at 2016 and 1916, there is a very different picture, where women can now control their own lives. Even when I was born, you needed a male relative’s permission to open a bank account or to buy a property in most of Europe, and obviously abortion was still illegal.
Today we have women as a majority of university graduates, women at the top of every profession, there are incredible role models and the pay gap is declining. We have made huge progress, and we shouldn't forget that. The EU has always had a strong emphasis on gender equality and has been a driving force in advancing legislation: particularly in the field of work and ending discrimination, equal pay for equal work and maternity leave. However, we haven't made any progress on gender equality in 10 years.
The Gender Equality index showed that we have made no progress since 2005. If you look at the whole of Europe and across all the indicators, the index since 2005 had women at 51.2% of the way towards achieving 100% gender equality. If you look at 2015 it's 52.8%, which shows that it is crawling forwards at a snail's pace.

People think we have achieved gender equality. Complacency is the number one issue. We have to make sure that people are well educated about the continuing discrimination and inequality between women and men. Of course there is a huge difference between countries, but even in Sweden, which is the best, it still only has an index of 75% equality.
So if you look at Europe as a whole, women only have half of the rights that men have, and women only have half the worth that men have. It's not good enough.
The second problem is the economy, and very particularly neoliberal economics. If you link neoliberalism and globalisation in general, it has had a major impact on inequality.
Our response in Europe has been to impose austerity measures and cut back public spending as a means to address the crisis has made poverty and inequality grow. Austerity has been a disaster for Europe, and it has been a disaster particularly for women.

Austerity has been a disaster for Europe, and it has been a disaster particularly for women.

Why's that?
Women are much more likely to be employed in and benefit from public services, so the cutbacks there have affected women in employment. Secondly, women are much more likely to use public services because they are much more likely to be responsible for care work, child care, elderly care - because of patriarchal stereotyping - so when those things are cut back, women take the brunt of it.
Women are much more likely to be employed in low-paid, precarious, part-time jobs, and this is on the increase.
Thirdly, in precarious stressful environments, there tends to be an increase in violence against women.
In Britain, the Gender Budget Group calculated that 75% of all government cuts since 2010 came directly from women's incomes.

If you look at the global economy, we are seeing a new downturn, and this is going to have potentially disastrous consequences on women in Europe.
Europe is in a deep period of introspection and reflection. I would acknowledge that there is a deep democratic crisis in Europe, a crisis in leadership, accountability, and democracy. People are feeling that their voice isn't heard: it is essentially a problem of power.

If you look at the index with the statistics, the two areas where we had the lowest scores were power and time. In Europe, only 27% of members of parliament are women. Less than 15% are members of corporate boards. It's astonishing. We have an absolute crisis of having enough women in decision making positions, in the corporate and institutional and political world - and this includes NGOs too.
This is a problem for democracy, because we aren't getting the best people around the table to make decisions. We are not getting all perspectives recognised and women's lives and experiences are not being heard I'm talking about women about all classes, abilities, sexuality, races. I'm not just talking about white middle class women.

It's not just about having more women, but it's about transforming our political system. We need to transform the institutions, parliament and the board rooms so that they are different in the way that decisions are made. We need them to be more democratic and more transparent. When more women are in power, the culture of decision making changes.

We are not getting all perspectives recognised and women's lives and experiences are not being heard I'm talking about women about all classes, abilities, sexuality, races. I'm not just talking about white middle class women.

How can that happen?

If you have more women you have more likelihood of the gender equality perspective into every discussion. In the European Parliament, for example, you will have the MPs who are pregnant, who have small kids, who have elder care responsibilities bringing their experiences to the table, and bringing a different perspective. This doesn't just apply to elected members of parliament but to other institutions as well. The Economic and Social Committee has less than 23% of women, the European Commission has the target for 40% of women in leadership.
If you can picture 40% of women in leadership at the European Commission, it would impact on the working culture and the working life, and the experience of women. It would limit sexist behaviour, and provide role models, and you are more likely to bring the gender perspective into every conversation. Gender always matters, whether you are doing transport policy or tax policy or climate change policy. It matters, and women are much more likely to bring that perspective.

We are also living through a huge transformation of the way that work is understood, lived and experienced. In the Davos Summit they called it the "fourth industrial revolution". It's a massive digital revolution, that affects us all. There are huge pros for it: you can connect with social media and work from anywhere.There is a whole new world of voices, which for feminism is so exciting, because now we can all talk to one another without going through the male-dominated media industry. It's shaking up the corporate world too, with the sharing economy and new businesses. This provides opportunities for women.

From a feminist perspective, we always thought that work was not fully understood as the full range of activities that people participate in, and not just that which they are paid for. And this is the issue of time. In Europe, on average, women work 60 hours a week, and men work 50 hours a week. We are under the impression that men are pulling their weight around domestic labour and care work, but women are still doing 12-13 hours more of unpaid work than men.

So as we reconfigure work, with this digital economy, and having portfolio careers and creating social enterprises from our kitchens, we need to reframe what it is to work. It's hugely exciting, but if we don't put a gender perspective right in the middle of it, we will reinforce the same message. It's absolutely essential that we seize this occasion of the fourth industrial revolution and manage the risks of it, because it will lead to a lot of precarious jobs, and make sure there is a gender perspective included.

It also links to migration. If you look at the declining birth rate in Europe, since WWII last year was the first time the death rate was higher than the birth rate. There are demographic shifts, and an ageing population is leading to massive needs for care, and this is bound to fall heavily on migrant women, in classic low-paid jobs such as nursing, cleaning, and care. How we manage migration in a way that contributes to the diversity of our society is vital. It's all part of the globalised economy, where we export labour out to where it is cheaper, or mechanised. This used to be for factory work and farming work, but now is also happening to intellectual labour too, with computers.

The point is that unless you understand the gender dimension, you will reinforce the inequalities between women and men, and in society in general. The fact is that we need the population coming from migration. First and foremost we need to respect our responsibilities around refugees and asylum seekers. If it is well-managed it is a positive opportunity.

Why is our birth rate declining so much?

In countries where there is much more support given to families like in Scandinavia, people are having more families and younger than in the south of Europe. In this new economic reality, we need to think a lot more about how we redistribute wealth, work, time, and power in a much more effective way. We are not in a growth paradigm anymore.

When we look at the trashing last year of the proposed Maternity Leave Directive, which proposed to have 20 weeks paid leave for women, the Member States were not able to agree on it. It's really short-sighted. We can't afford it, but we can't afford not to. Yes, ideally it would be for men and women and we would share it, but if we couldn't even get that then it's going to be complex.
I think we have a big issue to bring a gender perspective into our understanding migration. We'll be doing a big piece of work with the Women's Refugee Commission looking at analysing the gender dimension of the migration trends. In September 2015, 75% of all the refugees coming in were men. Now more than 50% are women, and it's totally shifted. We need to look at why this is.

Many of them end up being ex trafficking victims...

Also. We need to understand what is going on, and we are trying to understand and raise awareness of the violence. If you are fleeing from Syria, you are fleeing violence. En route you are vulnerable to all forms of violence: whether it is labour exploitation in a sweat shop in Turkey, or sex trafficking, or human smugglers, or rape, or beatings en route. We have evidence of violence within the asylum centres. We are trying to understand the continuing of violence and how our systems and our processes can protect women from that violence and help integrate them in a positive way so they can make a positive contribution. Those are the big challenges, but the good news is that feminism is alive and well!

It appears to me that a few years ago, declaring oneself a feminist was frowned upon. Now it is more socially accepted. Why do you think that is?

I see it personally as a new wave of feminism. A wave is a rolling process, and we have a new momentum. This comes from the new generation of young women, who were raised with an expectation of equality that have on the whole done better at school and graduated in greater numbers, and are shocked to discover the discrimination they face. They are educated, confident and connected, empowered and able to express that in a whole new way.

The fact that they are connected especially makes a huge difference. 100 new feminist groups were formed in universities last year. It's just exploding, and I think social media has to do with it.

In the UK you have Everyday Sexism for example. Getting catcalled in the street is annoying, but when you see that it is hundreds and thousands of people getting catcalled, you see that it is a systemic issue which makes the personal become political. With the classic 70s feminist, you would form networks and it would be local. Nowadays you can be global, and get inspired by the women in Brazil or in South Africa. It's amazing! There is the generational thing, the access, and media. There have also been some critical characters that have made a huge difference. You have writers, comedians and performers that are speaking out: Cheryl Sandberg in the corporate world, Jennifer Lawrence, Beyonce and black feminism, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writing books that are becoming bestsellers, and Elena Ferrante in Italy. It also opens up feminisms.

What are the most effective measures that could be taken at the European level in order to advance women's rights?

One massive problem we have is the lack of funding. Lack of resources for gender equality. Part of the austerity has been to cut back on equality bodies and women's ministries, but also women's public services and organisations. As a sector we are dramatically under-resourced. The whole of the women's movement globally will have less revenue than Amnesty International.

In Europe it is no different. Many of our members have no paid staff, no annual income or government funding. The women's movement as an agent and a motor for bringing the change that we want has been dramatically impacted in the past 10 years.
One big thing that can happen at EU level and national levels would be reinvestment in the women's movement. This means campaigns, individuals, and educating and empowering women and men.

The second thing is that we are disappointed that the European Commission has decided not to have a political strategy on equality between women and men. There is a strategic working paper, which is fine, but it is not a Commission communication. It doesn't have a level of authority of political commitment and engagement that we would expect to see, and from what we've seen in the past. This is a downgrading for gender equality, in spite of the fact that 22 Member States wrote for a strategy and parliament voted twice for a strategy, the Commission with its centre regulation decided that it wasn't necessary.