The importance of gender equality for growth and employment has been highlighted on the EU agenda during the Swedish Presidency. The objective has been to ensure that the gender equality perspective has a greater impact on the EU's common strategy for increased growth and jobs after 2010. During the final EPSCO meeting in November, political agreements were also adopted on parental leave and equal treatment of self-employed people so as to reduce gender-related differences in the labour market.
During the ministerial meeting at the end of November, conclusions were adopted on gender equality within the context of continued work on the EU strategy for growth and jobs after 2010 - the Lisbon Strategy. The conclusions highlight the link between gender equality, economic growth and employment. The Council conclusions also call on the Spanish Presidency to work together with the Commission to include a section on gender equality in the key message from the EPSCO Council to the meeting of the European Council in spring 2010, when the new employment strategy will be discussed.
“This is the first time we have had a policy discussion on gender equality at a Council meeting," said Minister for Integration and Gender Equality Nyamko Sabuni after the meeting. “Work to promote gender equality is key to the EU's economy. Women's participation in the labour market over the last decade has led to the increase in GDP that we have seen throughout Europe."
Gender equality during the economic crisis
The discussions in the Council had been preceded by a two-day conference in Stockholm in October on the ways in which gender equality and increased growth and employment are connected. All the speakers at the conference agreed that it is now time to take action with regard to incorporating a stronger gender equality perspective into the Lisbon Strategy. At the same time, attention was drawn to the risk of long-term gender equality efforts taking a back seat because of the financial crisis.
“In many countries there is a clear connection between high GDP per capita and high employment levels among both women and men," said Vladimír Špidla, EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities. “The economic crisis must not be used as an excuse to lower our ambitions when it comes to gender equality. On the contrary, it is more important than ever that we mobilise efforts to promote the active participation of women in working life."
Combining work and family life
In the conclusions from the EPSCO meeting in November, the Member States are also urged to promote childcare and to reduce wage differentials and other gender-related differences in the labour market. At the earlier conference on gender equality and growth, the importance of being able to combine work and family life, and the effect the design of the tax system has on women's labour force participation were also emphasised.
“Different countries face different challenges, such as access to childcare, the design of the tax system, the need to combat discrimination and changing attitudes. The very fact that there are significant differences makes it important to meet so we can learn from one another and find ways of making progress so that women and men have the same conditions and opportunities in working life," said Ms Sabuni during the meeting.
New directive on parental leave
Statutory parental leave is also an important factor in making it easier for many women to combine work and family life. During the EPSCO meeting a political agreement was also adopted on the Commission's proposal for a new directive on parental leave, which is to replace the one currently in force. According to the proposal, the new agreement on parental leave signed by the social partners at EU-level earlier in the summer will now be implemented.
The draft directive means that parental leave will be extended from three to four months per parent and at least one of the four months shall not be transferable to the other parent. Employees returning from parental leave will also be able to request changes in their working hours for a limited period and the employer will be obliged to consider and respond to such requests. Protection against less favourable treatment (not only against dismissal) for those who make use of their right to parental leave will also be introduced. Since several EU countries already have more far-reaching legislation in this area, national legislation can go beyond the demands of the directive.
Equal treatment of self-employed women and men
During the Council meeting, the Member States were also finally able to unite on a political agreement on a proposal on the principle of equal treatment of self-employed women and men. The objective is to make it easier for women and men to combine work and family life.