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Document 51997AC0770

Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on 'Equal opportunities for women and men in the European Union - 1996'

OJ C 296, 29.9.1997, p. 24–30 (ES, DA, DE, EL, EN, FR, IT, NL, PT, FI, SV)


Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on 'Equal opportunities for women and men in the European Union - 1996'

Official Journal C 296 , 29/09/1997 P. 0024

Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on 'Equal opportunities for women and men in the European Union - 1996` (97/C 296/06)

On 13 February 1997, the Commission decided to consult the Economic and Social Committee, under Article 198 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on 'Equal opportunities for women and men in the European Union - 1996`.

The Section for Social, Family, Educational and Cultural Affairs, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 26 June 1997. The rapporteur was Mrs Drijfhout-Zweijtzer.

At its 347th plenary session (meeting of 9 July 1997), the Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 113 votes to two, with two abstentions.

1. Introduction

1.1. The Fourth Action Programme on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men (1996-2000) launched the idea of an annual equal opportunities report. The ESC supported this initiative in its opinion of 22 November 1995. On 12 February 1997 the Commission adopted the 1996 report.

1.2. According to the foreword this first report has three main goals: to give visible expression to Community policy on equal opportunities (visibility), to encourage debate on the progress to be achieved and the policies to develop (strategy), and to act as a reference point for the Commission, the EU Member States and countries applying for membership (convergence).

1.3. The report also sets out to reflect in a balanced way progress and trends at both European and national level. As such the report also serves as a monitoring instrument for equal opportunities. The first part of the report broadly reflects the structure of the Fourth Action Programme. The second part tackles a specific subject in the equal opportunities debate.

2. General comments

2.1. In the past the Commission has played a very important part in giving shape to Community equal opportunities policy, e.g. through its legislative proposals which have led to the adoption of the equal opportunities directives and through the establishment of five-year action programmes. These action programmes have repeatedly given an impetus to a new wide-ranging discussion on the position of women. This policy has focused attention on equal opportunities and has helped ensure progress in the Member States, partly as a result of the case law of the Court of Justice. The adoption of this first, comprehensive report on equal opportunities is not only a welcome complement to existing Community policy, but above all marks a new, constructive step in the development of a general and coherent EU equal opportunities policy. It is therefore a very laudable initiative with which the ESC is particularly pleased. The document deserves to be widely distributed.

2.2. As has already been pointed out, however, in connection with the submission of the Fourth Action Programme, there is still a long way to go. It is important here to stress the statement in the report that 'action to promote equality requires an ambitious approach. This involves not restricting efforts to the implementation of specific measures to help women, but mobilizing all general measures and policies specifically for the purpose of achieving equality` (page 10).

The policy so far pursued has not (yet) had the desired effect and has not always produced satisfactory results; this is shown by the wealth of very recent statistical information contained in the report on many aspects of women's position in the labour market and their participation in decision-making. This information does not in fact add very much to what is already known. Nevertheless, bringing together this information in a single document is certainly worthwhile, particularly for individuals not directly concerned with equal opportunities policy, but who nonetheless encounter it or are likely to do so in the future. The emphasis on the state of play and the fact that the information given often covers an extended period raise the question as to whether the Commission document can really best be described as an 'annual report`. Whilst it is understandable that the first annual report should take this form, the ESC feels that a different format would be appropriate for subsequent reports. This question is dealt with at length in chapter 4 (suggestions and recommendations).

2.3. An important question to ask here is 'what is the purpose of an annual report of this kind?` The foreword lists quite a few objectives and one wonders whether these are not perhaps too broad and ambitious. In a number of respects the report does not always completely fulfil the expectations raised by its objectives.

2.4. Although the Committee realizes that this may have to do with the lack of Community-level powers in certain fields, it has to be said that the balance sought has not always been achieved. This is certainly true of the account it gives of European and national trends in certain areas. Thus, for example, considerable space is at times devoted to national policy developments and only very little to Community developments (e.g. chapter 2 and paragraph 2.2 on employment strategy); or the other way round (chapter 5, where only Community developments are dealt with). There is also an imbalance in the relative weight accorded to different subjects and chapters (or sub-divisions of these). Far too little attention is paid to certain issues (e.g. chapter 5, exercising rights).

2.5. The Commission feels that the report should serve as a monitoring instrument for equal opportunities policy. Clearly one aim is to provide a way of looking at the impact of Community policy in the Member States. And in relation to a number of areas the Commission does this. For example the exercise has been successful in relation to EC structural policy and the implementation of the Structural Funds. But in other areas there is room for improvement (childcare, exercise of rights). It may be because of the nature and layout of the report that there is little (critical) evaluation of the Community's own policy. The form of report which the ESC would like to see offers more opportunities for this for the future (see point 4.1).

Another point is the way the Community establishes policy priorities, particularly given the current constraints on the Fourth Action Programme budget.

2.6. Quite apart from this, the focus of the report on equal opportunities is too narrow. It gives the impression that women already have equality as far as rights are concerned. But both aspects are essential; equal rights are the basis and equal opportunities the next step. The danger is that concentrating on equal opportunities and the idea of partnership and mainstreaming may cause us to lose sight of the need to continue to ensure that equal rights are guaranteed. That this fear is not an imaginary one is illustrated by the fact that the report pays too little attention to the implementation of the equal opportunities directives in the Member States and does not tackle properly the question of the effective application of the rights which women derive from (Community and national) equal opportunities law. This impression is confirmed by the fact that the report makes no mention of the current discussion of the incorporation into the EC Treaty of a general principle of equal treatment (see also the ESC's Kalanke opinion) (). The lack of a passage to this effect is all the more striking as chapter 4 of the annual report quotes from the text of the Charter of Rome, Women for the Renewal of Politics and Society of 18 May 1996: 'We ..., women ministers of different Member States of the European Union, ... affirm our commitment to the need of enshrining equality between women and men in the new European Union Treaty`. The ESC called for this both in its Opinion on the Fourth Action Programme () and its Opinion on the Commission proposal amending Directive 76/207/EEC ().

2.7. A final point worth making is that the Community is increasingly resorting to all kinds of non-binding instruments in order to give form to Community law. It seems that the Commission assumes that recommendations, for example, also entail commitments for the Member States (see page 97). Even if there is no direct commitment, then at least the principle of Community obligations laid down in Article 5 still holds. The question is also to what extent these instruments/documents get through to the parties deemed responsible for applying them (e.g. the code of conduct on equal pay) and how compliance is monitored. The report is silent on these questions.

3. Specific comments

3.1. Chapter 1: Building partnership in a changing society

3.1.1. The global and integrated character of the new equal opportunities policy, as expressed in the introduction to the principle of mainstreaming, is positive. The annual report defines mainstreaming as 'the systematic consideration of the ... needs of women and men in all Community policies`. The report also rightly states that 'the simultaneous mobilization of legal instruments, financial resources and the Community's analytical and organizational capacities` is also needed in applying the principle of mainstreaming. Reference is also made to the need for a sound statistical analysis on which to base equal opportunities policy. The development of equal opportunities policy is however so complicated and is proceeding so slowly that specific actions remain necessary in addition to mainstreaming, i.e. actions which promote opportunities for work and financial independence.

The report unfortunately confines itself to highlighting the complexity of applying the principle of mainstreaming in practice and identifying the problems encountered. Although a short summary is given of possible mainstreaming strategies at the various levels of policy, this is not further developed nor is there any indication of measures which the Community has adopted, or intends to adopt, in order to enable the principle of mainstreaming to make a real breakthrough. Nor does the report shed any light on the way in which the principle is being applied in the Member States (in connection with the adoption of the principle by the Community or otherwise). The sole exception here is the Netherlands.

The report's description of the situation in the Netherlands has two interesting aspects which would merit further study at European level. The first of these is the application of equal opportunities impact reporting as an instrument for the prior assessment of planned policy. Perhaps it would be possible to develop an instrument of this kind to assess Community policy; instruments of this kind existing in other Member States should also be used here. A recent development in the Netherlands shows that there may be risks in mainstreaming policy if, for example, it results in special equal opportunities bodies being closed down (as happened in the Netherlands with the Equal Opportunities Council) before it becomes clear how equal opportunities issues are being integrated into and considered by other (advisory) bodies.

The Commission communication entitled 'Incorporating equal opportunities for women and men into all Community policies and activities` concludes that in 1996 significant progress should have been made on the introduction/application of the principle of mainstreaming. For example, measures should have been adopted to facilitate the on-going monitoring and evaluation of action and, in the light of this, appropriate analytical indicators and procedures established. It was also assumed that policy and measures at Member State level as well as EC-level actions in this area would be presented in the first annual report. The fact that there is virtually no reference to this in the report suggests that too little progress has so far been made in the Member States. This is regrettable.

3.1.2. The gradual increase in application of the principle of equal opportunities in Community structural policy, and consequently (now) in all the Structural Funds, and the positive impact this has had, for example, on the use of available funds to combat long-term unemployment among women is an encouraging development. Despite this improvement the impression remains that too small a proportion of Structural Fund resources goes to women. This also applies to projects carried out in the framework of programmes like Socrates and Leonardo. If the funds and programmes are to promote equal opportunities, on-going monitoring and evaluation from a gender perspective is necessary. This applies to all areas where obstacles to the promotion of equal opportunities arise.

3.1.3. Because this report is addressed to a broad readership, it is a pity to have to say that the paragraph on the social dialogue and the social partners has missed the opportunity of dealing with the subjects being discussed by the social partners in the framework of the social protocol. Thus for example little attention is paid to the outcome of the first phase of the consultation on the basis of the protocol on the protection of the dignity of women and men at work.

The ESC would like to stress however that the provisions of the Social Protocol allowing the social partners to establish their own rules do not absolve the Commission of its responsibility, especially with regard to difficult issues, to prepare equal treatment instruments.

3.2. Chapter 2: Women and men in a changing economy

3.2.1. More than half of this chapter is devoted to listing the many aspects of the position and participation of women in the labour market. One of the most important general conclusions is that there is still a large gender pay gap, the key factors here being the concentration of women in low-paid work and gender segregation on the jobs market. As already stated, there is little spectacular new information. It is worth stressing once again that one of the most important objectives of equal opportunities policy is the right to work and financial independence. The clear segregation of the labour market is both an obstacle to equal opportunities and a problem of quality in certain areas. The value of the information may lie in making employers and other involved parties more aware of the problem. It is a pity, however, that job evaluation has been completely omitted. The low classification assigned by job evaluation and pay assessment systems to work done by women is however an important cause of women's low pay.

3.2.2. Changes in the field of education are also important in breaking the mould. The ESC's Opinion on the balanced participation of women and men in decision-making () states, inter alia, that boys and men should be encouraged to enter traditionally female vocations. Research and development is needed in the field of education to give women greater freedom to study and to boost their self-confidence, enabling them to break into new and different areas of work, and also to encourage them to become self-employed. Systems of schooling and study subsidies have proved their worth in enabling all working women to keep their knowledge and skills up to date.

3.2.3. The chapter on wage disparities is inadequate both in its analysis and its conclusions. According to the very limited data provided by Eurostat, European women on average earn about 20 % less than their male counterparts. Little evidence is given for this figure and it appears to relate only to manual labour. The ESC awaits with great interest the results of the Eurostat study into wage differentials between men and women announced by the Commission. The study, to be carried out in accordance with a new system, is expected to be published in June 1997.

3.2.4. This chapter correctly rightly points out that differences between women are increasing. It is a great pity, however, that the position of the most vulnerable or weakest groups of women, such as immigrants, members of ethnic minorities, the elderly, lone-parent families, working women, women re-entering the job market and the disabled, are dealt with in this context inadequately or not at all. It is not only women who wish to work and are able to do so who are concerned here, but also women whose personal circumstances do not permit them to participate in the work process. The incomes of this last category are often low. The ESC feels that it is not enough merely to state that disparities between women are increasing, but that the situation of these vulnerable groups deserves closer attention and a more active approach on the part of the Community. The Committee urges Eurostat to begin collecting more data on these categories in the short term. The ESC notes with regret that there are also major geographical disparities in the situation of women in the European Union.

3.2.5. One positive development is the multiannual programmes for employment set up by the Member States in line with the five priorities established by the Essen European Council. These priorities explicitly call for attention to be paid to the difficult situation of unemployed women. Although most Member States have adopted measures in favour of, or specifically aimed at, women, it is a pity that the equal opportunities issue has generally played only a secondary role in the establishment of the multiannual programmes. Neither does the second series of programmes (1996) bring a gender dimension to general policy, except in the case of Sweden.

The unsatisfactory position of working women in the EU highlighted in the report and the fact that the multiannual programmes for employment in most cases do not have a gender dimension, although this is one of the most important aspects of current Community equal opportunities policy, call for a more active approach on the part of the Community. Although Community measures, among others, are considered to be of crucial importance, the Community does not appear to be going further than making political declarations on the promotion of equal opportunities (e.g. the report to the Madrid Council). Moreover, the action taken so far at EC level (excluding the Structural Funds) is too general and too vague for applying the principle of mainstreaming and introducing a gender dimension into policy.

3.3. Chapter 3: Combining work with household life

3.3.1. Having children is highly relevant to women's participation in the labour market. This has a major impact on combining work and family life. The ESC is concerned that budgetary austerity measures in a number of Member States are resulting in childcare budgets being cut back, with a detrimental effect on equal opportunities policy. The consequence of inadequate facilities to complement the family could be that women are able to take an only atypical employment or work not commensurate with their qualifications, or else that they cannot work at all.

To this detrimental effect can be added that of women's health. Recent findings in Sweden and Norway show that the double burden of working full time and (less-than-equal shared) unpaid work at home are having an increasingly serious effect upon women's health.

But apart from raising children, tasks such as caring for parents/elderly people or a sick partner can also make it more difficult to combine work with family life. The report does not look at this problem in a broader perspective and the latter aspect of care is completely neglected. The possible consequences of combining caring and work and the lack of suitable social security facilities in this respect are also left out of the picture.

The report does devote some space to the situation of childcare services in the Member States, but the Commission states that it is not possible to conclude from the available information whether childcare services fulfil the principles set out in the childcare recommendation (availability of reliable care at a reasonable cost etc.). There is no system for the collection of standard data and their interpretation. The ESC feels that the Commission should take the initiative in developing a system of this kind.

The second and third equal opportunities action programmes established the European Commission Childcare Network. Through this network a number of the problems affecting opportunities for combining work and family life were tackled, including childcare facilities, the equal right to work and men's share of childcare. The network from the outset attached great importance to quality. When the fourth action programme was adopted the network was dissolved. Childcare facilities (including facilities outside school) are an area which receives too little attention, which is prejudicial to equal opportunities. The Committee feels that if no suitable Community initiative is developed to solve this problem the network should be re-established.

3.3.2. One positive feature of the report is its study of tax and social security policy in order to identify potential discrimination against women's participation in the labour market, and the greater attention paid to the tendency to base the social security and tax system on the individual. These systems have to be based on the individual. This is the only correct approach. However thought has to be given to the extent to which the abolition of derived rights worsens the financial situation of (the most vulnerable groups of) women in the absence of suitable compensation (combating of poverty). The comparative studies currently being carried out in the Member States can serve as a basis for future proposals in this area.

Attention should also have been paid to the possible consequences of privatization in the social security domain for women's position in the labour market and for the equal treatment of men and women. Thus, for example, in the Netherlands privatization of sickness insurance has had an impact on all workers, but it is above all flexible and household workers, who of course are often women, who have been hardest hit, e.g. with regard to obtaining sick pay. It should be borne in mind that social security arrangements are often not tailored to 'atypical` work (non-full-time work for an indeterminate period), although it is women who do this work. The Committee feels that this aspect of privatization is ideally suited to in-depth study in a future Commission report, with special emphasis as the impact on women.

It would also be advisable to look in the next annual report at social security problems in a more interrelated way, i.e. in conjunction with the existing directives (79/7, but also 86/613 concerning the self-employed) and the proposal for a third directive on equal social security treatment.

3.4. Chapter 4: Promoting a gender balance in decision-making

3.4.1. The report's detailed description of the current situation underlines once again how much ground women have to make up. By the end of 1997 it will be clear how far the Recommendation on the balanced participation of women and men in decision-making, adopted by the Council on 2 December 1996, is being effective in closing the gap. The fact that the Commission is putting this objective into effect in its own staff policy is to be welcomed but unfortunately this does not seem to be having enough effect. Provided that this policy can be properly fleshed out, it can serve as an example for the Member States, social partners, NGOs etc.

In the framework of on-going evaluation and debate it is however important that targets and timetables be established at the appropriate level to promote this participation.

3.5. Chapter 5: Enabling women to exercise their rights

3.5.1. The first point to be made here is that the title of the chapter does not fully cover its content. Only a small part of the chapter actually deals with the exercise of rights derived by women from Community (and also national) equal treatment law.

First of all, the Community legal framework and any developments in it are sketched. But this approach is incomplete and too limited for the following reasons. The report only deals with developments at EC level (the case law of the Court of Justice and legislation). No attention is paid at all to the implementation of Community law and policy in the Member States, although it would be particularly interesting to know what shortcomings there are in this area (e.g. with regard to application of the concept of indirect discrimination). There is little point in recording developments at Community level if implementation in the Member States (which is in fact what it is all about) is not considered. Thus it is surprising that the information on the pregnancy directive is restricted to a summary of its contents. Although the Commission has perhaps not yet received the necessary official information from the national governments on the implementation of the directive (deadline October 1994), a report of the Commission's Legal Network does contain information on implementation in the Member States.

Apart from this, the report concentrates too much on recording developments without following this up. Thus it is a matter for concern that in social security cases the Court of Justice appears to be applying a more flexible test with regard to the objective justification of indirect discrimination (maintenance of financial balance, objective of legitimate social policy).

3.5.2. The Commission does not appear to be critical of its own activities with regard to the application of Community equal treatment law. The ESC is aware that the legal network has repeatedly called on the Commission to be more active in monitoring implementation shortcomings in the Member States and that it has proposed an Article 169 strategy in this respect. Article 169 proceedings have been specifically proposed with regard to various Member States. However, to date only 11 actions for infringement have been brought.

Little attention is paid to the problems encountered by women in enforcing their rights in the national courts. The report merely states briefly that a conference on the subject was held with the support of the Commission, without mentioning the exhaustive study in all the Member States which preceded this. The study did, however, reveal a large number of obstacles, such as lack of knowledge, the cost and duration of legal proceedings and the gathering of evidence and distribution of the burden of proof. Moreover, workers who feel that they have been discriminated against may be deterred from taking action by the fear of being victimized. This often leads to legal proceedings against the employer being dropped. It also appears that evidence is only one of the many problems encountered. Although the report lists the requirements enumerated by the Community (i.e. the Court of Justice) for guaranteeing effective legal protection, it gives no indication of possible follow-up action on obstacles identified. The Community (i.e. the Commission) seems too reticent on the issue.

3.5.3. With regard to the considerable space given to the Commission proposal to amend Directive 76/207, the ESC would point out this proposal was not endorsed in its opinion of 25 September 1996.

3.6. Chapter 6: The advances of Beijing

3.6.1. The ESC once again stresses the importance of the platform established at the Beijing conference; it deals with the same main questions and priorities as the European Union. The EU should, in its equal opportunities activities, accord high priority to international cooperation.

In 1996 little action had yet been undertaken on this chapter and little progress achieved.

4. Suggestions and recommendations

4.1. It would perhaps be preferable to carry out a general stock-taking every three years in conjunction with the evaluation of the current action programme and the process of formulating the next action programme, i.e. a progress report which would consider whether, on the basis of statistical information, the position of women had actually improved, and pinpoint areas where the action taken had been inadequate. The (shorter) annual reports could serve as a basis for this, concentrating on the specific effects of a given Community or national equal opportunities action or measure. It would be desirable for the report to concentrate on the effect of Community policy/legislation in the Member States, indicating what additional/new Community policy/legislation was necessary.

The foreword implies that future annual reports will have the same objective: reflecting the structure of the Fourth Action Programme. But is this desirable? In the first place, the structure of the report seems rather artificial, with some issues falling under a number of different headings and being referred to in different chapters, involving needless repetition. Also, developments with regard to Community equal treatment legislation could be better integrated into the relevant chapters, as policy and legislation should not be considered in isolation from each other.

A more important point, however, is that as a result of the structure of the report the information it contains remains too general. It would perhaps be advantageous to highlight a number of principles or points of action and to consider how these have been introduced or implemented in specific areas. Thus, the implementation and impact of the principle of mainstreaming in various policy areas (e.g. transport, agriculture) could be looked into.

4.2. Chapter 3 of this opinion contains a number of suggestions. These are briefly summarized below and a number of new recommendations are added. The most effective strategy should be to develop and improve the competence and skills of women and continue to influence positive attitudes towards girls and women starting in family life:

- enshrinement in the Treaty of the principle of equal treatment of women and men;

- targets and timetables for the balanced participation of women and men in decision-making;

- campaign to raise awareness of the equal pay for equal work code of conduct;

- improvement of statistical research into wage differentials between men and women in order to judge whether equal pay policy is being effective;

- analysis of the future of women in the labour market;

- research into ways of strengthening women's labour-market position;

- research into the economic situation of weaker groups of women;

- adoption of Community initiatives in the field of childcare or, if this is not possible, re-establishment of the Network;

- in the interests of the clarity of the report, digressions on the situation in a Member State or initiatives taken in a particular area could be dealt with in an appendix or at the end of each chapter.

Brussels, 9 July 1997.

The President of the Economic and Social Committee


() OJ C 30, 30. 1. 1997 - Proposal for a Council Directive amending Directive 76/207/EEC on the implementation of the principle of equal treatment for men and women as regards access to employment, vocational training and promotion, and working conditions.

() OJ C 39, 12. 2. 1996.

() OJ C 204, 15. 7. 1996.