Equality is the future

Commissioner Flynn, Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen, Allow me first of all to thank the Commission on organising this conference on “Equality and the future” -and for bringing together participants from all Member States, so we can learn from each other what is happening both at a European level and on the ground in the Member States. [:] When we discuss equality and the future, we all know what the problems are, though these might differ somewhat from one country to another. We know what the problems are – because most of us present have learned the hard way, through our own experience. In fact, the issues of today’s and tomorrow’s working sessions give a good check-list of the main obstacles to full equality and the challenges facing us if we are to achieve real equal opportunities for women. Take a quick glance at the list: Equality and employment; Mainstreaming Women in decision making; Reconciling professional and private lives Let’s look at them one by one.

I’d like to address first the issue of women in decision making as this is certainly one of the most important factors in our aim to achieve equality. Important because until such time – and I fear it could be still a long time – till such time as women are on an equal footing with men, or at least have achieved a critical mass in numbers at all stages of policy formulation and decision-taking, women’s special needs and skills will tend to be underplayed, undervalued and under-resourced. This is not necessarily due to bad will on the part of men, but because men generally have no direct experience of inequality and are unaware of the importance of gender difference and the way it affects so much of our lives at home and on the labour market. When I say decision-making I do not mean just in politics, as politicians at various levels can only decide on general frameworks. I mean also decision-making in business, in trade unions, in banking and finance, in education and the media.

This links in with the fourth big theme of the conference – how do we move forward on the eternal headache for women: how to reconcile professional and private life. Women remain in a situation, where we feel we are the victims of the one fact which cannot be changed: that biology determines that women – and not men – get pregnant. Women give birth and have to accept career breaks, which mean that for a short period at least they lose out on job possibilities and career development. This still results in employers too often thinking twice before employing women because of the potential disruption this will cause to production and work schedules. Women continue to carry out the main task of providing for children and for other family dependants and this has a serious impact on their availability for work. We need to look at this from two angles at least: on the one hand reassess gender roles in the household. We already have some studies and proposals on how to calculate the value of the household work. I am aware of the controversy of the issue: we do not want to send women back home. On the other hand how can we develop the new gender contract which was spoken of so much after Beijing ? How can we get men to change their attitudes so that they do not think they are doing us a favour when they get on their hands and knees and clean the kitchen floor after a hard day’s work or, worse still, take a day off work to look after the sick children ? On the other hand, reassess this word “employability”, so often used these days. Is there not some implication that it is the woman’s fault if she is not “emloyable” because there is no child care available ?

Society’s arrangements for family and child care, or the lack of arrangements, are the very reasons why it is difficult in reality to promote equal opportunities for women and men. Care arrangements at present are so poor in some countries within the EU that it is difficult to see child-birth and child caring as a privilege. Women are too often forced to feel as victims of the systems. Partly because of these realities, it is also difficult to be overoptimistic at the prospects for the near future. We are of course aware that a lot of new jobs in the last few years have been taken up by women rather than men and on paper therefore we have seen a more gender balanced work place. So far so good. But: a big proportion of those jobs are part-time, flexible jobs; they are temporary, they are without security and they are often less well paid. Are these the characteristics of the future labour market? More flexible ? More adaptable ? They are certainly convenient as a means of providing temporary respite against the disastrous figures for unemployment, where again women are the first to suffer. The Member States – perhaps unfortunately – carry the biggest responsibility still. However, the EP has an important role to play. Only last week in Parliament’s plenary session we adopted significant reports on women in unemployment, with proposals on how to improve the National Employment Action Plans and the Employment Guidelines, on the situation of single parents and on the role of women in cooperatives as a means of job creation. Moreover, I might add that the Committee on Women’s Rights will be adopting its position on the Structural Fund reforms tomorrow morning. Last week in fact, the European Parliament in its plenary session also touched the issue of equal opportunities in Structural Funds and we Members of the Parliament and Commissioner Flynn decided to increase our common efforts particularly what comes to equal opportunities in the structural funds. In the view of the enlargement of the EU this will be ever more important.

When talking about the future, I really hope that the Commission is going to use and apply the new Amsterdam Treaty. Through the Treaty’s stated principle and task of equal opportunities, the Commission will have the basis for proposing real “pro-active” policies in order to correct the imbalances we are discussing here today and tomorrow. I can guarantee you our full “attention” whenever needed and whenever consulted. I would sound another note of caution, however. The recent Agreements on Parental Leave and Part-time Work marked a step forward in that the social partners were able to reach agreement on controversial dossiers through the social protocol. In the Parliament, as you know, many MEPs were unhappy both with the content, which we fear will do little to alleviate the situation for many women in practice, and the procedure, whereby Parliament is effectively excluded from discussions, and the dossier is effectively closed for the time being in the eyes of those who fear stiffer legislation. So, please use the Amsterdam Treaty, Commissioner. Please use the Codecision Procedure; involve the elected Parliament in the process. Do not hesitate to ask for “the Heaven”, if that is the way to get “half the Earth”, which rightfully belongs to women. Let us cooperate along these lines and let us listen to the participants from the Member States present here today and tomorrow on how possibly to tackle the barriers they face everyday. I wish you every success with the Conference.

Conference “Equality Is The Future” Brussels, 21. 9. 1998