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Europe today: why gender is still an issue

In 1908, 15,000 women marched through the streets of New York asking for shorter working hours, better pay and voting rights. A year later, on 28 February, the first National Woman’s Day (NWD) was held in the USA in accordance with a declaration of the Socialist Party of America. In 1910 during the second International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen, Clara Zetkin, leader of the ‘Women’s Office’ of the German Social Democratic Party, proposed the celebration of a Women’s Day every year in every country on the same day, on which women could voice their demands. On 19 March 1911, International Women’s Day (IWD) was celebrated for first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. More than one million women and men rallied for women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, to hold public office and for the end of discrimination.
Even if more than one century has passed since then, most of these demands, to one degree or another and to a different extent, are still valid, as they concern problems which have not been solved completely at global and European level.

The gender pay gap

The most intuitive and widely used measure of the inequality level between women and men is the gender pay gap measure, which is the difference between men’s and women’s pay, based on the average difference in gross hourly earnings of all employees.
As a recent report by the European Union (2) describes “on average, women in the EU earn around 16 % less per hour than men.” The gender pay gap varies across Europe, as we can see on the map below. Interestingly, a gender pay gap exists even though women do better at school and university than men, “on average, in 2012, 83 % of young women reach at least upper secondary school education in the EU, compared to 77.6% of men. Women also represent 60 % of university graduates in the EU.”


We should point out that in the EU, the term gender pay gap as used in EU statistics and publica-tions refers to  ‘unadjusted gender pay gap‘, as it does not take into account all the factors that im-pact on the gender pay gap, such as differences in education, labour market experience, hours worked, type of job, etc. Clearly, all these elements are also essential if we want to have a broader picture. It is important to see that on the one hand we are dealing with a form of direct discrimina-tion, in terms of different pay for the same job, whereas on the other hand there is occupational segregation, which refers to the situation that  men and  women are channelled into different types of occupational roles and tasks.

Occupational segregation

This is a very complex problem  and there are different theories, which can be synthetically defined as supply side or demand side oriented. The former emphasises the ‘natural predisposition’ of women to do care jobs, given their role of mother; the latter focuses instead on mechanisms of discrimination and recruitment practices which make segregation persistent. Also, the methods used to measure segregation are not clearly defined, as it is difficult to provide an extensive de-scription of dynamic trends and at the same time of the interaction between jobs and working con-ditions, which would be necessary to ensure an adequate level of data aggregation. In order to ex-plain job segregation we refer to the approach adopted in a recent EU publication (4) which focuses on the analysis of segregation in the 20 most common occupations, ranked from the most male-dominated (building workers) to the most female-dominated (personal care workers). According to this study, ‘women tend to be virtually shut out of certain occupations among the 20 – accounting for less than 5% of Mechanics and metal workers; Building workers and miners; and Drivers. Men are not excluded from any occupation to the same extent but account for less than a quarter of Associate nurses and healthcare assistants occupation, Teaching associate professionals and Customer service clerks.’ Segregation has been rather stable, but there are important variations across Europe. These include differences in levels of segregation within the same occupations. For example, in the case of supervisory responsibilities we find that they are highly concentrated in certain occupations and tend to be low in female-dominated occupations. ‘Men are also more likely to be supervisors than women in every single occupational group, even the most female-dominated ones.’ This is obviously correlated with the gender pay gap, which exists in almost all occupations. In fact, men tend to increase their share of better-paying occupations as they get older while women become increasingly excluded from the professional, white-collar occupations associated with higher pay and more concentrated in more female-dominated, less skilled occupations with shorter working hours.

Motherhood gap

Similarly we find that mothers of children under 15 are under-represented in male-dominated oc-cupations. The situation of mothers is particularly serious.  According to ILO reports (5,6): “mothers often earn less than women without children, depending on where they live and how many children they have. Globally, the motherhood pay gap increases with the number of children a woman has; in many European countries, for example, having one child has only a small negative effect, but women with two and especially three children experience a significant wage penal”. Moreover, ILO continues: “Access to maternity protection has improved, though many women are still left out. While the percentage of countries offering 14 weeks or more maternity leave has increased from 38 per cent to 51 per cent, more than 800 million women workers globally, or 41 per cent of all women, still don’t have adequate maternity protection. “

Employment contract

Another relevant aspect is the link between segregation, working time and employment contract, which results in a higher tendency of women being employed in part time occupations, whereas the percentage of full time jobs compared to part time jobs increases in sectors where more women than men are employed.  On the other hand, men’s average working hours are longer than women’s in every occupation. In most of the cases, the part time contract is not a voluntary choice of women and the share of involuntary part time is higher among women than men.
Segregation produces various effects and given its persistence, it forces us to consider its overall economic and social consequences. Clearly, it restricts the employment choices for women and feeds a gender division of roles which is archaic and discriminating; it represents an obstacle to accessing higher level jobs both on a vertical dimension (which also results also in a gender pay gap) and horizontal dimensions (in terms of responsibilities on the workplace).

Gender segregation and the crisis

Gender segregation had a positive effect for women at the upset of the crisis in Europe. As pointed out by a recent EU study (3), when the initial dimension of the crisis was mainly financial, women’s segregation into the public sphere of service employment acted as a protection against dismissal, whereas men employed in both financial and manufacturing construction sectors were hit immedi-ately and more vehemently by the recession.  Nevertheless, as the crisis persisted and reversed to the level of debt of European countries, the imposition of fiscal consolidation measures, the budget cuts on public services, such as health and care, has produced a negative impact on the entire so-ciety, but especially on women. They have been hit in two different ways: on the one hand, given the higher level of segregation, women have lost their jobs in the public sector; on the other hand, they have been forced into ‘unpaid job’ which are increasing as the provision of public care and health services is reduced.


For these reasons, many analysts consider fiscal consolidation and austerity policies, not only as ineffective and recessive, but also as sources of relevant risks for gender equality. In the light of this, we should be prudent in interpreting the relative reduction of the gender pay gap and the similar pattern of unemployment rate across both genders as a reduction in gender inequality, but rec-ognise instead the deterioration of general conditions in terms of wages, employment level and working conditions.

Two centuries ago, the French socialist writer and activist Flora Tristan (1803-1844) wrote about herself: “Almost the entire world is against me, men because I am demanding the emancipation of women, the propertied classes because I am demanding the emancipation of the wage earners.” Nowadays, despite the achieved progress, it is still necessary to demand the emancipation of women, but this issue cannot separated from demanding the emancipation of wage earners.  Even if gender discrimination and subordination has its roots in a pre-capitalist period, it is important to realise as Nancy Fraser (1) points out that today there are “three distinct dimensions of gender in-justices: economic, cultural and political“ and those “who aim to emancipate women from gender hierarchy need to become more aware that we operate on a terrain that is also populated by mar-ketising force”. In other words “No serious social movement, least of all feminism, can ignore the evisceration of democracy and the assault on social reproduction now being waged finance capital.’ If it is true, as stated by professor Bettio in (3), that women in general are progressively abandoning their buffer role, which is now carried out by even weaker parts of the population, such as young men, migrants and young women, then the general approach to gender equality should be linked to and enriched by a more general critique of the economic structure of our society, addressing the unequal distribution of resources, the role of finance and the destruction of the public sphere services as a threat for the wellbeing of the entire population.

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(1) Fraser, Nancy. Fortunes of feminism: From state-managed capitalism to neoliberal crisis. Verso Books, 2013.
(2) Tackling the gender pay gap in the European Union, European Union 2013
(3) The impact of the economic crisis on the situation of women and men and on gender equality policies, European Union 2013
(4) A New Method To Understand Occupational Gender Segregation in European Labour Markets, European Union 2014
(5) ILO Progress on gender equality at work remains inadequate , 2015
(6) ILO The motherhood pay gap: A review of the issues, theory and international evidence, 6 March 2015

* Persons employed part-time % of total employment.
** Share of persons aged 18 – 59 who are living in households where no one works.
***Share of persons who are at work and have an equivalised disposable income below the risk-of-poverty threshold, which is set at 60 % of the national median equivalised disposable income (after social transfers).


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