EU Commissioner Věra Jourová: Tackling the Root Causes of ‘Feminization of Poverty’ in Europe

Written by | Friday, May 22nd, 2015

EUBULLETIN talked in an exclusive interview with Ms. Věra Jourová, the EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, mainly about her efforts to tackle some of the main causes underlying gender inequalities across the European Union and also about the prospects of the somewhat controversial Women-on-Boards and Maternity Leave Directives.

EUBULLETIN: Gender issues, which are an important part of your agenda, have become a very prominent topic in recent years. Although it might seem that gender equality has been achieved, research shows that women across the European Union are still underpaid compared to men, have lower pensions and often accept more inferior working conditions just to stay in the workforce. What do you think are, generally speaking, the underlying causes behind this unfavorable situation?

Commissioner Jourová: I think in Europe, in some Member States more, in some less, the traditional role of a woman prevails which is supposed to stay at home, to take care of the children, to look after the relatives who are ill and so on. So one cause behind the gender inequality stems from this stereotype – as a result, the woman gets lower salary than the man, which could also be attributed to the fact that the care for the family is paradoxically still seen by the society as being of a low value. Women should not be punished for being mothers.

However, this is really surprising because women do the most important thing ever – they give birth to babies and they bring them up – I do not want to speak about a burden because it is a joy for mothers to play this important role in a society. When I was a mother I loved this period of my life but still I felt that it weakened my position within the society because I had to try hard to overcome this imaginary barrier – I had to study to get back to work, to build good carrier prospects.

EUBULLETIN: Are you suggesting here that women in Europe should abandon their traditional role in the society?

Commissioner Jourová: Speaking about motherhood, this role of women must, of course, be maintained. But there are tools, which women should be provided to enable them to choose if they want to stay at the labor market. I am speaking now about childcare facilities, flexible working arrangements etc. And also the men should be more involved in taking care of the children. Regarding the pay gap, which is very visible, we are moving forward in terms of its elimination very slowly and the question is how to speed up the process. In fact, the figures always show the same thing – now we have on average a pay gap of 16 percent in the European Union but in some countries, the pay gap is even higher, such as in the Czech Republic where it is almost 22 percent. We look at this situation as a problem in the society that sociologists call the ‘feminization of poverty’ – it refers to the situation, in which women represent a disproportionate percentage of the world’s poor and those economically and socially disadvantaged due to the lack of choices and opportunities based on the gender biases.

One more problem and a crucial priority for me as an EU Commissioner is to combat the violence against women and here the legislation to protect victims exists – violence is a criminal offence according to the law, which can be used to punish the perpetrators. But even here we need to push more on the Member States to use the existing law. European Commission is encouraging the Member States to comply with the standards set by the Istanbul Convention – the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence – and I also plan to call upon the EU to adopt all necessary measures required by this Convention.

EUBULLETIN: You have also said that only campaigning, which comes from the grassroots, does not help. But it seems to me that the EU Commission tends to solve problems – also in gender policy and discrimination – using a top-down approach. Let’s have a system, let’s have a proposal, let’s have a quota. Don’t you think that more might be achieved if the problem is really treated at its roots, at the grassroots level? While the Commission is naturally supporting gender equality and higher number of women in leadership, the system of quota has been widely criticized. Do you think that quotas are the right way to help women become leaders?

Commissioner Jourová: I think the right way is not to emphasize quota as the goal of the legislation – we should rather see it as an instrument. More than the quotas for women, it’s about enhancing the diversity of the companies’ supervisory boards. When it comes to the current version of this Women-on-Boards Directive put forward by the Commission, ‘woman’ is only in the title but inside the Directive we speak about ‘an underrepresented sex’ on the supervisory board, simply because it may happen that not only women but also men could be underrepresented there.

And so it is quite unfair if we speak only about the quotas. We are also now discussing how to better support parents when having babies. Nevertheless, I should also stress that I really don’t want to conceive this new legislation only simply as yet another piece of gender legislation. We are talking about growth and jobs in this context because we need to look at this phenomenon from a much wider perspective than only from the gender perspective.

EUBULLETIN: In the United States, gender inequality and especially a low number of women in leadership positions and differences in salaries between men and women are also broadly discussed. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, for instance, has launched her Lean In campaign to support women at work, help them sharpen their skills and strive to become leaders too. Do you think that Europe would also need similar female leaders that would help attract more attention to the issues of gender inequality?

Commissioner Jourová: I try to use more than only one instrument and at this moment I am in contact with most of the important women’s organizations in the EU and I also regularly talk to many activists and great many female managers of big companies. In short, we have agreed on the following: Women need better networking and better mentoring from those who already do the business to those who want to start. This would be immensely useful. So this is the concept you have just quoted from Ms. Sandberg in the U.S. who focuses her strategy on networking and mentoring.

As to networking, it is somehow rooted in our nature that women are worse at networking than men who somehow acquire this skill naturally. Women must first realize that this would be a useful thing to do, to connect into the network. And it is interesting that on the company’s board or somewhere where people are to cooperate, women are very good team players. We are very well prepared because we have very high social intelligence. But to network among themselves, for women to help each other, this is still unusual. I think this is something we should help through the campaigns and good leading examples.

EUBULLETIN: In my opinion, the unfavorable situation that women have to deal with in the labor market is connected to motherhood and maternity leave. The proposal for the new maternity legislation has been deadlocked for quite some time, which is also because of the great variation between different Member States in this regard, with some of them having mandatory leave while others don’t. Some pay about 65 percent of the salary prior to pregnancy and some cover 100 percent while the length of the maternity leave also varies from country to country. In other words, parental leave is not as common throughout the block as policymakers would likely wish. What legislation is, in your opinion, needed to tackle these issues?

Commissioner Jourová: I came to the Commission when the proposal for the Maternity Leave Directive had already been debated for quite a few years. Since the Directive presentation in 2008, many Member States have since changed their legislation and some of them have even adopted parts of this proposal either when it comes to the length of the maternity leave or the pay. So when I came, I heard from some Member States that we need something new and fresh what would better reflect the current needs. There were also some isolated voices that we don’t need such legislation from the European level at all. So there are very diverse opinions on this legislation and very high reluctance to facilitate its adoption. I also work with Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labor Mobility, Marianne Thyssen, on the approach including the work-life cycle of parents, which would also partially tackle the leave of parents when their baby is born.

EUBULLETIN: Thank you very much for the interview.

Commissioner Jourová: You are most welcome.

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