Friday, 24 April 2015 00:00

Women and the job market: a picture of today’s Europe

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women past
Photo: Paul Townsend (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-ND 2.0

In the past women have done a variety of jobs: from working in factories during war periods to steamming tobacco leaves.
In this picture Florence Brown, the first female Lord Major of Bristol, returns to her old job for a few minutes (June 1963).


Women's employment is one of those evergreen issues in the agenda of the old continent. Besides dusty stereotypes that still relegate women to few sectors of care and other social needs, the problem of women's employment has been worsened by the recent economic crisis. E&M author Nicoletta Enria approaches the topic and unveils European trends when it comes to women's education, wages and their presence in decision-making positions.

In the past couple of years, issues regarding gender equality have entered mainstream discourse with cries for gender parity by the likes of American actress Patricia Arquette in her Oscar acceptance speech and British actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson’s #HeForShe campaign calling for men to join the battle. Although proposals for gender equality in the economic, political and cultural spheres seem to have become popular again, how far has this actually gone in providing concrete progress for women? With a backdrop of financial instability bringing forth a rise in unemployment and austerity measures, what is the European job market looking like for women nowadays?

The European Commission stated in its 2014 Report on Equality between Men and Women that gender equality is not only a fundamental right but is also essential for economic growth. Needless to say, the financial crisis affected a whole generation, resulting in a sharp rise in unemployment, especially for young people. However, the proportion of inactive young women remains double that of young men. Austerity measures in countries such as Greece have led to cuts in public, health and care sectors — all sectors which normally employ women. This is leading to a rise in women unemployment and a rise in unpaid care work for women, with currently 45% of Greek women living below the poverty threshold. This also casts a light on the problem of occupational segregation, which is when your gender defines what ranking or job you get based on gender stereotypes deeply engrained in our society.

These stereotypes usually dictate that women are better suited for jobs in less well-paid sectors or lower ranks. This kind of mentality, reinforced through social schemes in different European countries, has been relegating women to jobs generally considered inferior and usually less well paid for a very long time now. For example, 29 out of 1000 female European graduates have a computing-related degree and only 4 will go on to work in this sector. Campaigns such as #NotJustForBoys in the UK, launched by Employment Minister Esther McVey, aims to encourage women to take on non-traditional roles such as in the science, engineering and construction sectors.

These gender stereotypes also affect women in decision-making positions, reaffirming that women still have to battle with the glass ceiling to reach top positions. Leadership characteristics are usually labelled as very "male", thus meaning very highly career oriented and ambitious women will receive discrimination. Claire Godding, diversity manager at BNP Paribas Fortis, states that women themselves are not even seeking to serve as board members due to this general feeling. According to data released by the European Women’s Lobby (EWL), the largest umbrella organisation of women’s associations in the European Union, the percentage of female board members around Europe ranges from a very positive 30% in France to a disappointing 12% in Austria.

The financial crisis affected a whole generation. Austerity measures have led to cuts in public, health and care sectors — all sectors which normally employ women


Some countries have taken legal measures in the encouragement of gender parity at the decision making level such as France with the 2011 Copé-Zimmerman law, thanks to which nine out of 10 French companies have at least one woman on their board. On the other hand countries such as the UK through the Davies Review of 2011, proposed voluntary measures whereby a companies were encouraged to raise their numbers of women at decision-making level. This has been relatively successful with many companies thus voluntarily raising the amount of women on company boards; however, leading this progress to be very slow. However, one thing most European countries have in common is that quota measures are not enough if effective sanctions are not applied and are not affecting any kind of increase in terms of numbers of women CEOs. Many people are against quotas due to a misperception that it allows women to attain jobs not based on talent or efforts. The EWL states that any policies encouraging and facilitating the entry of women in the job market take our society at most half way towards a functioning system whereby both genders can freely choose their economic roles.

Another challenge for women, which is what Patricia Arquette so passionately demanded in her Oscar acceptance speech earlier this year, is wage equality. As can be seen in the 2014 Gender Equality Report released by the European Commission, for every hour worked women receive 16% less than men. This figure is higher than 20% in Czech Republic, Austria, Estonia and Germany, but as low as 3% in Slovenia and 7% in Italy. However, the gender pay gap is usually lower than average in countries where women employment is particularly low, such as Italy. A high pay gap usually means that the work force is highly segregated. Often, companies think it’s not their problem so do not take any action against this. Ann Francke, chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute has suggested that companies should conduct their own surveys to straighten out this problem. For example, Tesco, the British multinational grocery retailer, is proud to have reduced its wage gap to a mere 1%.

to power
Photo: Steve Snodgrass (Flickr); Licence: CC BY 2.0
In current Europe women are still struggling when it comes to gender and wage equality and their presence at decision-making positions

The European Commission, in its strategy for equality between women and men, sets out to achieve gender parity in senior positions, equality in economy and the labour market, equal pay, tackle gender violence and promote gender equality beyond the EU. As reported by European CEO, a leading subscription-based print and online publication, there are now more women entrepreneurs than ever before - it seems as if progress is underway for women in the labour market. Leading women in Europe such as Italian minister for Integration and Youth policy Cécile Kashetu Kyenge, EU Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmstrom and many more are showing us that reaching top-positions is not impossible, inspiring young women to reach above and beyond the glass ceiling.

These frustrating statistics though suggest that for most of us young European women progress is moving nowhere near fast enough. How will we get there? With more and more influential women gracing European politics and decision-making positions, hopefully our quest for gender equality will be always louder. The EWL promotes women’s employment by effectively enforcing and strengthening EU equality legislation, writing reports on the progress made for women in various sectors and based on this research recommend further policies and legislations to bodies such as the EU and the Council of the Europe and United Nations. If governments began making reporting on pay data mandatory and reinforcing quotas with effective sanctions, such measures would help accelerate the long needed change in giving women equal chances in the working world.

Last modified on Friday, 24 April 2015 07:44
Nicoletta Enria

Nicoletta Enria is Italian, originally from La Spezia, grew up in Rome, London and Frankfurt. She graduated from University College London, studying Language and Cullture and now works as Project Assistant and Social Media Assistant at the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO). Follow her on twitter: @NicolettaEnria or her blog.

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