Gender equality turns governments EU-sceptical

2011-01-12 According to expert, governments become more EU-sceptical than their citizens whenever EU gender equality policies interfere with Nordic labour market traditions. The Nordic countries, in turn, want the EU to do more for men.

If EU commissioner for gender equality Viviane Reding realises her plans to introduce mandatory gender quotas on executive boards within the EU countries in 2012, she will meet quite some resistance.

Gender quotas are a controversial topic in several EU countries. Thus some of them are collaborating to put the commissioner’s plans down. So far, Denmark and Sweden have received support from Great Britain and the Netherlands. This is what Danish Minister for Gender Equality Lykke Friis said to the Danish press in October last year.

The proposal matches up seamlessly with the new EU gender equality strategy which specifically obliges the EU to initiate goal-oriented measures within the next years to promote more women in top jobs where economic decisions are made. This strategy also has Denmark’s and Sweden’s blessing.

To expert in EU matters Marlene Wind, this does not come as a surprise.


EU commissioner Viviane Reding considers introducing mandatory gender quotas on executive boards within the EU-countries. She meets resistance among several Nordic governments. Photo: © European Parliament

Unwelcome interference

Marlene Wind, Professor and Head of the Centre for European Politics at the University of Copenhagen, researches into the interaction between EU and the member states. She recounts numerous instances of national governments devising politics and legislation at the negotiation table in Brussels, but suddenly backing down when it came to implementing EU legislation at home.

“The EU wants to grant its citizens rights across borders. At the same time, however, many governments desperately strive to maintain national control and protect national legislation from EU law. It’s a bit paradoxical that the countries who made the rules to begin with try to avoid their implementation. One might ask why they pass them, then?” she says.

This tendency is apparent in several areas. Environment and issues regarding free mobility of the work force are two of them. A third one is gender equality.

“Gender equality is a special area because it interferes with the Nordic tradition of having management and labour decide things. Thus, legislation within the area is unwelcome”, says Marlene Wind.

However, laws have been passed on several occasions when cases tried by interest organisations on behalf of citizens have made it to the Court of Justice of the European Union.

The new EU sceptics

For instance, a number of cases concerning pregnancy rights and maternity leave were tried at the Court of Justice during the 1990s. They were tried by Danish women and effected revisions of Danish legislation; much to the loud dismay of the current government.

Marlene Wind. Photo: Sara Djupsund / Norden i Fokus

Thus, the EU expert asks who the true EU sceptics of today really are.

Citizens have always had a reputation for being lukewarm towards the EU. In the Nordic countries, particularly the women have been sceptical, and the women’s movement has called the EU a masculine and patriarchal project.

According to Marlene Wind, however, it is rather the governments who have become the EU sceptics. Not least as regards gender equality where governments – as we are witnessing now with the proposal to make gender quotas on executive boards mandatory – caution against undue EU intervention.

“The Nordic governments have an interest in safeguarding national competency while at the same time pleasing the industries as well as management and labour”, says Marlene Wind.

Men on board

However, far from all gender equality-related initiatives become sticking points between the EU and some of the Nordic governments. EU and the Nordic region can also inspire each other.

In October, Nordic ministers for gender equality agreed to work towards increased active male participation in gender equality policy-making. This proposal formed the starting point of a discussion on men and gender equality recently as gender equality experts convened under the auspices of the new EU institute for gender equality in Vilnius (EIGE).

On this occasion, Hans Bonde, Denmark’s representative in the EIGE Experts Forum, i.e. the consultative board of the institute, argued that EU should focus considerably more on equal opportunities for men in the future.

“Not like back in the old feminist days when men were supposed to get involved for the benefit of the women, but with a focus on men’s unequal opportunities and gender equality problems. One issue is boys in the educational system. They fall behind compared to the girls. Another is men’s health. In the EU as a whole, men die before women, and they get the heavy diseases earlier”, says Hans Bonde, masculinity scholar and Professor at the Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences, University of Copenhagen.

A radical proposal

The ensuing discussion at times became rather heated, relates Hans Bonde.

While the EU commissioner for gender equality’s controversial gender quota proposal has not even been raised in the EIGE discussion forum, the question as to how masculinity, men and gender equality might be introduced into the EU universe generated some attention.

“Passions ran pretty high. Some perceived it to be a very radical proposal and didn’t agree – apparently, the women’s studies scholars in particular. But the majority felt that the initiative is necessary. We cannot formulate gender policies that only apply to half of the EU population”, says Hans Bonde.

When the EU presents its new gender equality strategy in five years, equal opportunities for men might be one of the new items on the list. Time will tell whether this will lead to protests from EU countries. Right now, gender quotas take centre stage.

In the spring, EU’s Viviane Reding will convene with a number of top leaders from the major European corporations. She predicts that the meetings will become decisive. Figures from the European Commission show that only 10% of the executive board members in the EU are women, and that women hold only 3% of the chairman positions. So if the corporations fail to convince the commissioner for gender equality that they will tackle this gendered imbalance voluntarily, EU will resort to more severe means: Legislation in 2012.

By Ulrikke Moustgaard

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