How the EU has engaged reverse gear on gender equality

by Elisabeth Klatzer and Christa Schlager

The European Union has long been perceived as a driver of gender equality. This perception has its roots in EU legislation, which has led to changes in individual member states and brought about some progress in the 1990s. It continues to exist today – yet the EU’s positive image in this regard does not stand up to closer scrutiny.

The treaty establishing the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the EU, was the first to lay out the principle of equal pay for equal work (later extended to work of equal value). Yet this was less about stopping discrimination against women than preventing competitive disadvantages for France, where equal pay had already been enshrined in law. A series of EU directives focusing on anti-discrimination, gender equality at work and various other labour market measures were also adopted, and the Treaty of Amsterdam enshrined the commitment to promoting gender equality in all policy areas (gender mainstreaming). Despite this, since the beginning of the new millennium or perhaps even before, women’s and gender equality policies have been stagnating or even moving backwards.

To obtain a comprehensive overview, we must look beyond anti-discrimination and gender equality laws and policies and assess the impact of general EU policies on gender equality and on the actual situation of women. The Gender Equality Index created by the European Institute for Gender Equality shows that the EU is little more than halfway towards equality. Instead of driving forwards, it is making progress at a “snail’s pace” or even regressing, as is the case in a number of member states in regard to the distribution of paid and unpaid work. Even today, more than 60 years after the prohibition of wage discrimination, the EU still remains some distance away from this goal. From the outset, the basic problem of women’s and gender policy in the EU has been that it is subordinate to the demands of “the market” (i.e. business interests) and the EU’s dominant “competitiveness” paradigm, which promotes neoliberal transformation.

The EU: On the retreat in matters of equality

Many EU equality policies have been scaled back over recent years, one example being the small but important budget allowances for gender equality that have gradually disappeared from the overall EU budget. The separate equality budget of the 1990s was integrated into the broader PROGRESS programme in 2000. In 2010, equality became a matter under the justice umbrella, which meant that it was no longer possible to determine the extent of specific spending on gender equality. In the late 1990s, the European Social Fund’s New Opportunities for Women programme was replaced by a weaker community initiative. For the period 2014 to 2020, the ESF did not earmark any special funds for gender equality at all. And the new medium-term budget framework proposal by the European Commission for 2021-2027 is even more gender-blind: gender equality is not visible at all, there is no attempt to integrate it into other policy areas (gender mainstreaming), and it is even proposed that funds for combatting violence against women should be cut – while military expenditure is being increased twenty-two-fold.

Though the inclusion of gender mainstreaming in all EU policies is generally considered a positive development, most core areas of the EU are not displaying any efforts to mainstream gender equality at all. On the contrary: the EU budget (like many other aspects) remains largely gender-blind. Gender budgeting, the approach whereby gender equality is integrated into budget policy, is not being applied.

Despite the existence of treaty provisions for gender equality, setbacks are occurring in key areas. While the employment policy of the 1990s included a dedicated pillar on equal opportunities, proposals for promoting gender equality have now all but vanished – and this has occurred despite the persistence and increasing entrenchment of enormous inequalities in the labour market. The minor role played by gender equality in employment policy today is solely to promote corporate interests such as cheap labour as a result of higher female employment rates. The quality of jobs and the situation of women in the labour market are decidedly not a focal point. In addition, any semblance of priority for women’s and gender policy has largely been eliminated from regional and cohesion policy, while in the majority of key EU policies – economic, climate, infrastructure and energy, to name but a few – equality has never played a role at all. Not only is there no progress, but past achievements are being threatened as well.

At the same time as the need for gender equality institutions and programmes is being widely highlighted, the EU Commission is systematically reducing them. The Commissioners’ Group on Gender Equality, which was established in the 1990s, was continuously weakened until its eventual dissolution in 2010. The vital and well-functioning Gender Equality Unit was removed from the Directorate General for Employment and reassigned to Justice, systematically weakening the cause. This was then further weakened by the Unit’s leader being called away in the middle of 2016 at short notice and not replaced for a long period. After being systematically downgraded over many years, the strategic work programme on gender equality is now ranked at the lowest level of Commission documents: it is no longer a Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council, and is not adopted by the College of Commissioners. It is classed solely as a staff working document and does not have any binding effect.

Negative impacts of key areas of EU policy

To conduct an overall assessment of gender equality policy, it is important to look at the impacts general EU policies have on gender equality. One example of this is EU policy in the aftermath of the financial market crisis, in particular the new economic policy rules that have been codified in various legal acts since 2010. A glance at the EU economic governance regime shows clearly how EU policies endanger past advances in equality and reinforce inequalities. The new economic governance undermines democratic mechanisms and shifts power to unelected institutions. In economic, budgetary and “structural” (i.e. neoliberal) reform policy alike, it opens the door to greater power of intervention by EU institutions over member states’ economic policies. At the same time as weakening democratic processes in budgetary and economic policy, it strengthens male-dominated, non-transparent institutions whose policies are based on highly traditional gender images.

Economic governance forced large cuts in government spending in both the crisis-hit states and the rest of the EU. Though it effected many changes to the public sector and the state as a whole, the cuts were targeted primarily at areas related to well-being; these include health and social issues, both of which are of significant importance for women as employees and service recipients. Less public sector employment has far more serious consequences for women than men, since public sector pay gaps are lower, opportunities for advancement are better and working conditions are generally more favourable than in the private sector. The costs of public spending cuts are shifted to the family space and compensated, first and foremost, by the unpaid work of women. In wealthier households, the burden often shifts to female migrants, who are poorly paid and sometimes lack documents. The latter fact frequently leads to them ending up in relationships of dependence and exploitation with their employers. Simultaneously, a predominantly male elite benefits from tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.

Economic governance is accelerating the shift in the state’s role from a driver of welfare to a guardian of “competitiveness”, which actually refers to increasing private profit-making while reducing social transfers and services. This is associated with major gender imbalances, and we are witnessing a re-masculinisation of social relations as a result. At the same time as social services and social security are being attacked, the male-dominated police and military state is being expanded both in the EU as a whole and in many member states.

Key points of action in the struggle for gender equality and gender justice

In order to promote gender justice, gender equality and the emancipation of women in Europe and beyond, three main themes should be placed at the centre of transformative movements: placing well-being and care at the forefront, valuing work beyond paid jobs and promoting gender justice in democracy. In addition to ensuring enough resources, feminist institutions, and promoting gender justice perspectives in all policy areas, we must work towards placing what really matters at the centre of economic policy. It is not competitiveness, the interests of financial industry, profits and economic growth that should be the focus, since these benefit only a small elite, but rather the wellbeing of all women and men, as well as environmental protection. In order to achieve a good life for all, care for humans and nature must be placed at the centre of politics.

Our understanding of work needs to go far beyond “jobs”. Caring for people, being politically active, having high quality gainful employment and caring for oneself are all equally important as areas of work. As such, there is a need for a radical reduction of gainful working hours in order to free up time for richer human lives”.

Gender democracy is a basic foundation of gender justice – and this goes beyond the balanced representation of women in institutions, though even this is far from being achieved. Important areas such as economic policy continue to be largely dominated by men. A radical move towards the substantial democratisation of decision-making processes, public service provision and work-life balance is required. It is not realistic to expect all of this from the EU.

Equality and gender justice play no role in current debates on the future of the EU, in which overwhelmingly masculine transnational and national elites largely dominate the discourse. Authoritarian and masculine values and worldviews are on the rise. At present, European discourse focuses primarily on the expansion of police and military capabilities. The talk is of “security policy”, yet EU policy actually promotes social and political insecurity and inequality.

As in the past, women’s movements and social movements will be central drivers of social progress and change. We cannot and must not wait for the EU, but must act to promote gender justice perspectives and alternatives “beyond the EU”, with broad alliances at local, national and international levels.


Hubert, Agnès and Stratigaki, Maria (2016): Twenty Years of EU Gender Mainstreaming: Rebirth out of the Ashes? In: Femina Politica. Zeitschrift für feministische Politikwissenschaft, 2/2016.

Klatzer, Elisabeth and Schlager, Christa (2016): The big picture makes a big difference: Taking into account changed framework conditions for budgetary policies at European level, discussion paper.

European Women’s Lobby (2015): Women’s Economic Independence in times of austerity.


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