When Nordic gender equality originates in Brussels

2010-12-05 Even though Nordic women voters have a reputation for being more EU-sceptical than their male counterparts, they really have the EU to thank for several drastic gender equality-promoting measures. At the moment, EU threats to make gender quotas on executive boards mandatory are creating a stir.

We need more women in the European labour market and more women in top jobs where financial decisions are made – and EU wants to facilitate this. These were just a few of the promises to the women of Europe when the European Commission presented its new five-year strategy on gender equality in September 2010.

The strategy caused some controversy. When it was presented, EU commissioner for gender equality Viviane Reding sent a clear message to the European trades and industries: If you fail to provide more women in executive positions, EU will make you by way of legislative measures such as gender quotas.

This message did not appeal to everyone – like Denmark and Sweden, according to Danish Minister for Gender Equality Lykke Friis. In October she said that both countries officially oppose gender quotas on executive boards and are now joining forces to gather a coalition of EU countries to block the proposal:

– The quotas highlight gender rather than qualifications. In the upcoming competition against China and other countries we need to put together the best team, said Lykke Friis to the news agency Ritzau.

Lever for equal pay

The gender quota controversy neatly demonstrates how EU policies regarding equal opportunities affect gender equality in the Nordic countries – even if they are passed as far away as Brussels. When the EU legislates, the member states must comply. This means that the EU has functioned as a lever for gender equality in many instances. Also in the Nordic countries who like to think of themselves as gender equality front-runners.

Danish women, for example, have the EU to thank for the Danish Equal Pay Act. It was implemented in 1976 after Denmark had joined the EU (at the time still the European Community) and hence had to incorporate the EU Equal Pay Directive into its existing legislation. The Equal Pay Act was later amended because the EU did not consider it adequate and thus charged Denmark with failure to fulfil obligations.

The Nordic region has had a vast influence on EU gender equality policies, Heidi Hautala says. Photo: European Parliament/Pietro Naj-Oleari

According to a new doctoral dissertation on the Europeanisation of gender equality, the EU has also played a positive role in Sweden. When Sweden was accepted into the EU in 1995, the then Equal Opportunities Ombudsman Lena Svenaeu found that EU legislation was more comprehensive than the Swedish one as regards certain aspects of equal pay – particularly discrimination. This caused her to try a number of principle cases in Arbetsdomstolen (the Swedish Industrial Court). Consequently, legislation was revised in 2001, and the court structure was changed.

– When Sweden voted on EU membership in the 1990s, women were the more sceptical voters. There was a shared concern that the EU would relegate Swedish social and gender equality policies to a lower level. Together with the other Nordic countries, Sweden used to top the gender equality statistics. So one would not immediately expect the opposite: That the EU would be able to lift Sweden to a higher level. But this was in fact the case as far as the Swedish equal pay legislation was concerned, says Tanja Olsson Blandy, author of the dissertation from Statsvetenskapliga Institutionen (Department of Government) in Uppsala.

Large Nordic fingerprint

Notably the field of employment has been a major EU area of action when it comes to gender equality. All of the 13 EU gender equality directives have revolved around equal opportunities in work life, whether in terms of old-age pension, parental leave or sexual harassment.

Particularly since the 1990s onwards, EU gender equality has picked up speed, greatly inspired by the UN women’s convention in Beijing in 1995 and influenced by new trans-European networks of women’s organisations lobbying for more powerful gender equality and anti-discrimination policies within the EU.

Today, gender mainstreaming is a principle within all EU programmes and policies. And gender equality figures as one of the basic EU values in the Treaty of Lisbon from 2009 – also known as the EU Constitution.

According to one of the grand old ladies, the strong EU focus on gender equality owes a lot to the Nordic region. Heidi Hautala, MEP and head of the Finnish  Council for Gender Equality (TANE), was elected into the European Parliament for the first time in 1995, and she was e.g. head of the Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality.

– There was no doubt that the Nordic countries acted as role models for the EU gender equality efforts. The Nordic region has had a vast influence on EU gender equality policies, she says.

The most recent example is the proposal that the EU earmark at least two weeks as paternity leave. Earmarked paternity leave was introduced in Norway 17 years ago. Since then Iceland, Sweden and Finland have followed. And even though Norway and Iceland are not EU-members, the proposal, part of a more extensive European parental leave package, is heavily influenced by all the Nordic countries and the Nordic welfare model.

– This was a Nordic idea through and through, as Heidi Hautala puts it.

The proposal presented in Parliament was however later withdrawn. Also withdrawn was another part of the package that would have entitled EU women to 20 weeks of maternity leave.

EU is watching

Time will tell whether the EU proposal regarding gender quotas on executive boards will succeed. Commissioner for gender equality Viviane Reding wants 30 per cent of the board seats of European companies to be occupied by women by 2015. This goal will subsequently go up to 40 per cent before 2020.

Should the EU decide to issue a directive on gender quotas, even the sceptical countries such as Denmark and Sweden will have to abide by it. If they fail to do so, EU can take them to the Court of Justice of the European Communities. This threat is quite genuine: Right now, Denmark is establishing an equal opportunities body after several warnings from the European Commission which enjoined all countries to do so eight years ago. Ignoring the request, Denmark was given a final warning in 2009: Make it happen – or see you in court.

By Ulrikke Moustgaard

Timeline: The EU and gender equality

1957: The EU gender equality policy is laid down in the Treaty of Rome. Here it is established that men and women should enjoy equal pay for the same work.

1975: The EU passes its Equal Pay Directive, stating that women and men should enjoy “equal pay for work of the same value”.

1980: The European Commission sets up an advisory committee on gender equality between men and women, made permanent in 1982.

1982: The EC/EU launches its first gender equality action programme. Every five years a new action programme is added. The programmes describe EU efforts within the area and provide the framework of EU financial support for equal opportunities projects within the entire Union.

1999: The Amsterdam Treaty, replacing the Treaty of Rome, takes effect. Gender equality is included as a goal in articles 2 and 3.

2000: The European Council, made up of the EU member state prime ministers, passes an employment strategy, the Lisbon Strategy, which is supposed to make the EU the world’s most competitive economy by 2010. It has a clear gender equality profile: The goal is to channel 60 per cent of the EU working-age women into the labour market before 2010.

2000: The European Charter of Fundamental Rights. Contains an article on gender equality.

2006: EU leaders pass the European Pact for Gender Equality.

2009: The Treaty of Lisbon takes effect. It has gender equality as one of its foundational values.

The new EU gender equality strategy

The strategy – or schedule – covers five years and comprises five areas: Economy and labour market, equal pay in leading positions, solving the problem of gender-specific violence, and promotion of gender equality outside of the EU.

EU wishes to:

Include more women in the labour market and reach the goal of a total workforce participation of 75 per cent for women and men by 2020.

Make proposals for goal-oriented measures to promote more women in top jobs where economic decisions are made.

Increase the number of female entrepreneurs and self-employed women.

Adopt an annual European day for equal pay to raise awareness that women on average still earn almost 18 per cent less than men in the EU.

Co-operate between all member states to combat violence against women, notably female genital mutilation within and outside of the EU.




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