Pilar has had a shining career in politics and now she is a journalist and writer. She is married and has three children, two of which are adopted. She arranges her family life around a tight professional agenda in which she has to catch planes week after week. She is an example of a successful woman, who, through her own merit, has worked her way up the social ladder. But this is an exceptional case. Thousands of women throughout Europe suffer economic, social, work-related and family discrimination. To remedy this, many European governments want affirmative action and favour equality between men and women in society.
A model cabinet
In Spain, women earn 29% less than men and occupy only 2.5% of senior management positions in companies. In jobs requiring only minimum education levels, differences can reach 56.2%. But the Socialist government in Madrid wants to bring an end to this imbalance and has set a good example: for the first time in Spanish history, the cabinet has an equal number of each sex (eight women and eight men). Moreover, the government of Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, will present a new law next autumn which will provide affirmative action for political equality and plans for equality in the workplace.
Despite these endeavours, a lot more than this will be needed because, according to a recent study by the World Economic Forum, Spain is found at the bottom end of the list when it comes to the equality between men and women (it comes 22 of the 30 OECD countries). The Nordic countries (Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Finland) occupy the top five positions because of initiatives such as the Norwegian government’s sanctions against companies that don’t have a board of directors which is 40% female.
Although positive discrimination, which has its origins in the affirmative action of the US, has reached Spain thanks to the current left-wing government, in France, it is up to the right-wing government to make these changes. The French law of professional equality, which has been in place since 2001, has proved to be insufficient and a French man still earns 20.6% more per hour than his female counterpart. The French government is therefore also working on a law to promote equality with regards to salary.
The legislative efforts in other countries of the EU are also worthy of mention. In the case of Great Britain, a law was set in 1975 which declares sexual discrimination illegal. However, despite this, there are still loopholes as there is still a significant difference in salary: men earn 23.3% more than women. As well as this, 30 years after this law was passed, statistics show that a million pregnant British women have suffered from discrimination in the workplace in the past five years. “The problem is the archaic view with regards to what a pregnant woman should do in the workplace. They see it as an illness. Pregnancy does not affect my capabilities at work but they don't give me the opportunity to prove myself”, explains Michelle Smith, a sales consultant, in a study about discrimination towards pregnant women in the workplace carried out by the European Commission for the equality of opportunities.
New countries, more differences
The situation in some new EU member states is even worse. For example, in Slovakia there is no specific legislation with regards to gender. Nor are the rights of women guaranteed. Slovakian society still has a deeply-rooted patriarchal system and 73.6% of young women think that participation in local government is the only way to improve his situation. It is also significant that the person in charge of the Committee for the Rights of Women in Slovakia, Anna Zaborska, speaks out against gender equality in many of her public speeches. Meanwhile in the Czech Republic, 60% of the population think that “men should work and a woman's place is in the home”. For this reason, the government is aware of the fact that equality laws are needed. But, at the moment, this is just an intention. The situation is much better in Hungary where the government is preparing a programme of action with regards to equal opportunities for men and women, above all with respect to a woman’s return to work after maternity leave.
What remains to come
Roxana, as a good wife, has to obey and follow her husband. She herself believes that she has to be a mother, wife, housewife and that she has to clean, cook and iron. This is the stereotype that exists in Romania where 80% of the population thinks in this way. But outside the home, the government wants to adapt to the requirements of the EU which respects gender equality. A law was approved in 2001 against sexual harassment in the workplace.
But it is not enough that the European Union imposes criteria of equal opportunities onto candidate countries or that it forces member states to bring in legislation. The fight for gender equality should be led by women themselves, who need to get personally involved in their future.