Written by Pierfrancesco Maria Lanza (EST Ambassador to Italy, Reggio Calabria)

Gender equality is one of the topics that has represented and continues to represent, one of the most important objectives of the European Union. Indeed, the EU, through its main institutions, has always focused on reducing the tremendous gap that existed – and in some ways still exists – firstly in Europe and subsequently in the rest of the world. The commitment of the European bodies over time has been to equalize the positions of men and women in all contexts of public, social and economic life, in order to implement the duties established by the Member States in their common agreements. This has happened by introducing gender equality among the highest values ​​and objectives respectively enshrined in the articles n.2 and n.3.3.2 of the Treaty on European Union, which state that:

The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.”(The European Union, 1992, p.5)

“…It shall combat social exclusion and discrimination, and shall promote social justice and protection, equality between women and men, solidarity between generations and protection of the rights of the child.” (The European Union, 1992, p.5) 

By considering these principles as the basis of the European Union’s action, the EU has aimed to  underline the vital need to guarantee equal treatment between men and women, in compliance with the basic principle of equality, as established by the major human rights charters. In particular, regarding  the EU’s work, article 23 of the “Charter on Fundamental Rights of the European Union” affirms that: “equality between men and women must be ensured in all areas…” (The European Union, 2000, p.13). As a result, we have been experiencing the  progressive abolition of the outdated principles of older societies, where the notion of male supremacy was observed in all areas of life at the expense of  women, who were seen exclusively as wives and mothers and relegated only to the care of the family.

Despite the initial reluctance of a still immature society, this work of civilization has had an effective result in the sector, which, in a certain way, can be considered as the basis for starting and continuing the process of promoting equal opportunities between men and women: the decision/ policy-making. We can precisely define this as a great result if we think that up to the 20th-century women of all over the world did not have the right to vote nor, consequently, could they imagine accessing the highest leading positions. However, the path for effective participation of women in the representation of their citizens or in the enactment of laws is not yet completed at a European level. As a matter of fact, data from many EU institutions and organizations show that women are still under-represented in political decision-making both at local, national and European level. For instance, the Gender Equality Index, developed by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) in order to measure gender gaps through the years, shows that “although ‘power’ is the area where most progress has been made in the past 10 years, it is also the area where the gender gap remains widest”(The European Parliamentary Research Service, 2019). That has also been stated by the European Parliamentary Research Service in its “Women in politics in the EU” report. Moreover, the latest research on gender equality in the European Parliament shows that the percentage of women-MEPs has consistently risen from the 15,2% of the 1979 election to the 40,4% of the 2019 one, toward a progressive index throughout the years. This obviously constitutes a great success, but there is also evidence of not full equality between men and women.

There are many reasons for equal representation of women in policy-making in the EU and in the rest of the world, so much so that the most important were transposed by the United Nations in their “Equal Participation of Women and Men in Decision-Making Processes, with Particular Emphasis on Political Participation and Leadership” report. Firstly, it highlights a sort of social-justice argument, according to which women represent approximately half of the population and, therefore, have the right to be represented as such. This constitutes the basis for the democratization of governance because only an equal representation gives the possibility to be heard and to consider everyone’s needs to all the people. Secondly, there is the experience argument, according to which women have different experiences and different  interests than men, which could even be conflicting. Therefore, they need to be represented in the policy-making process. in order to make sure that any adopted laws reflect  several points of view, and take into account all the possible requests. It is apparent, then, that this would be an easier task for women, rather than men because women are able to achieve solidarity in representing women’s interests when they reach certain levels of representation. Lastly, a high rise in political ambition has been observed among women, putting in place a positive model for everyone who wishes to enter into the world of politics. 

On the other hand, female politicians around the  world, but especially in the European Union, still encounter some obstacles connected with different electoral systems and cultural, economic and political contexts. More precisely, while some Member States like Sweden (55%), Finland (53,8%) and France (50%) have a high representation of women in the European Parliament, countries like Bulgaria (29,4%), Greece (23,8%) or Cyprus (0%) are among those with the fewest female MEPs. Consequently, as affirmed by the European Parliamentary Research Service in its “Women in politics in the EU” report, there are social barriers, which include: 

women’s individual perceptions of their own abilities and of the costs and risks of running for office, together with broader factors that can shape their choices and discourage them from doing so, such as: unequal access to key resources such as time, money, and political networks; unequal family responsibilities; male-dominated political cultures in parties and parliaments; gender roles and stereotypes in wider society; and an absence of female role models.” (The European Parliamentary Research Service, 2019, p.6)

In addition, obstacles to women’s participation in politics can start at a very young age, due to  the stereotyping practice which can be summarized in a message that women ‘are not made for’ politics or are not ‘legitimate’ political actors. Unfortunately, this is empowered by strong and negative reactions, which in turn contribute to creating a toxic atmosphere against women achieving a successful political career, reaching top leadership positions and sitting alongside men. For example, a survey conducted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in 2018 found an alarming level of sexism, harassment and violence against women MEPs in Europe. Those aged under 40 were more often subject to psychological and sexual harassment, especially MEPs taking a strong stance on women’s rights and gender equality. More precisely, 79.2% of MEPs who had been victims of attacks and insults were determined to stay in office and run for another term, and 33.3% said that these dangers had affected their freedom of expression and will of action during their job. 

Secondly, there are obstacles to the demand for women candidates. 

These include the way in which political parties – as key gatekeepers to political office – recruit, select and champion candidates, and voters’ preferences or attitudes towards women’s engagement in public life or as politicians. The relative influence of parties and voters varies in different electoral systems. In the most ‘closed’ systems, where voters vote for a party rather than individual candidates, parties have the greatest influence over which candidates are elected, but voters have more influence in ‘open list’ systems, where they are able to vote directly for specific candidates.” (The European Parliamentary Research Service, 2019, p.7).

Moreover, as we can understand it, systems based on proportional representation guarantee more possibilities for female candidates to be elected than majority systems based entirely on single-member constituencies. Thus, because a proportional system reflects more effectively the intents of the population, by allowing for more options among candidates, the possibility of a balanced election of  male and female candidates is higher. For these reasons, electoral systems may represent themselves a potential institutional barriers if they do not allow wide possibilities for gender equality.

The EU institutions are aware of these problems and have promised to successfully try to solve them, guaranteeing a powerful balance between men and women. So far, it seems that this is becoming a reality thanks to the work of the new European Commission, elected on 27th November 2019, and the new presidencies of the main European institutions. Indeed, for the first time ever, a woman has become the President of the European Central Bank, with Christine Lagarde. Moreover, also for the first time in history, the President of the European Commission is a woman: the German, Ursula von der Leyen, who, soon after her election in Parliament, declared that she wanted a gender-balanced College of Commissioners and lived up to her promise. On 9 September 2020, she presented 12 women and 14 men as commission nominees, who, after the election held by the European Parliament, became the new EU Commissioners. 

Ursula von der Leyen and Christine Lagarde are examples for all the women who want to start a career in politics, proving that, through their skills, experiences and awards, they can be successful and guide the destiny of millions of citizens. The desire for a new European Union “of the people” has led to the fight for more flexibility and the respect for human and social rights and has put significant attention to the environmental problems of today with the new Green Deal. This can be attributed to the special sensitivity of a woman. The European Commission, thanks to its women, is fighting for gender equality by recognizing that equality in decision-making is one of the priorities of the Strategic engagement for gender equality, a crucial topic of the EU political agenda.

We are at a good point for reaching perfect gender balance between men and women in policy-making and all other aspects of social and economic life. Nonetheless, we have to make sure that people believe in this endeavour and continue  to cooperate with and support all groups concerned, including EU institutions, governments, social partners, NGOs and businesses, so that they can design and promote EU-wide actions for gender equality in leadership positions, according to the project of the European Commission.


References

The European Union, (1992), “Treaty on European Union”,art.2 and art.3, 3rd comma 2nd paragraph, p.5

The European Union, (2000), “The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union”, art.23, p.13

The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), Gender Equality Index

The European Parliamentary Research Service, (2019), “Women in politics in the EU”, retrieved from 

<https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2019/635548/EPRS_BRI(2019)635548_EN.pdf>

The United Nations, (2005), “Equal Participation of Women and Men in Decision-Making Processes, with Particular Emphasis on Political Participation and Leadership”, retrieved from

< https://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/egm/eql-men/FinalReport.pdf>

The European Parliament, (2019), “Women in the European Parliament” infographics, retrieved from

<https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/20190226STO28804/women-in-the-european-parliament-infographics>

The Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, (2018), “Sexism, harassment and violence against women in parliaments in Europe”, retrieved from 

<https://www.ipu.org/resources/publications/issue-briefs/2018-10/sexism-harassment-and-violence-against-women-in-parliaments-in-europe>