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Gender equality in Europe is still a long way off

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Women’s lot in EU countries is improving—slowly. And it may yet go into reverse

According to a new report by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), an EU agency, progress towards gender equality is happening “at a snail’s pace”. The EIGE compiled data on 31 indicators of gender equality across six “domains”: work, money, knowledge, time, power, and health. The scores were then combined into a summary measure for every EU member, ranging from 1 (perfect inequality) to 100 (perfect equality). The EU’s overall score—for 2018, the latest year for which data are available—is 67.9, an increase of 4.1 points since 2010.

Most of these gains, modest as they are, have occurred in the “power” domain (shown in the chart, with its three sub-categories), not least in the halls of government and boardrooms of big firms. Today women hold nearly a third of seats in EU national parliaments and almost a third of cabinet posts (which has boosted the “political” component). Roughly a third of the board seats at big public firms are held by women, too, thanks in part to gender quotas (raising the “economic” element). At the EU level, institutions in Brussels have helped to increase the representation of women in top government jobs. In July 2019 Ursula von der Leyen was elected the first female president of the European Commission and Christine Lagarde the first woman to head the European Central Bank. Of the European Parliament’s 705 members, 41% are women. But headline gains mask variance within the bloc: since 2010 the gender balance on company boards and central banks in the Czech Republic and Hungary have actually worsened.

In other areas, progress has been even slower. In the “work” domain, although the gap between male and female employment rates in the EU has narrowed, labor markets remain highly segregated. Around 30% of employed women work in education, health, and social work, all of which are relatively poorly paid, compared with just 8% of men. Meanwhile, in the “time” domain, women still shoulder a disproportionate share of unpaid work at home such as cooking, housework, and caring for children or elderly relatives. The EIGE reckons that such responsibilities keep 7.7m European women out of the labor force, compared with 450,000 men. In Bulgaria 73% of women cook or do housework every day, compared with just 13% of men; in Sweden, the shares are 74% and 56%, respectively. In the “money” domain, the overall EU score has improved by 2.2 points since 2010, although in some countries, such as Greece, the score has fallen. Here, again, there is wide variation across countries.

Other gender imbalances are harder to measure. The EIGE compiled several indicators of violence against women in the EU but excluded them from its main index out of concern that the data were not reliable or comparable across countries. Indeed, domestic violence is universally under-reported, even in normal times. By forcing families to stay at home, lockdowns imposed as a result of the pandemic have only made matters worse.

Despite the progress since the Gender Equality Index was launched a decade ago, Andrews would doubtless say that there is much still to do. And this year, because of the pandemic, women’s lot has probably got worse. The report notes that school closures intended to slow the spread of covid-19 have increased the pressure on women to juggle work and family. Will the index for 2020 turn out lower than that for 2018? 4