Breaking Down Barriers: Towards Gender Equality at Work

This week (11 December), CESI and UNITEE, The New European Business Confederation, organised a conference on Breaking Down Barriers: Towards Gender Equality at Work to ask what can be done at the EU level to move towards gender equality at work by breaking down both structural and cultural barriers.

Breaking Down Barriers: Towards Gender Equality at Work

A diverse workforce is an undeniable asset. Employees and employers alike, in both the public and the private sector, are agreed on this. A balanced gender representation in all levels of employment and leadership has proven to have a positive impact on businesses and in the public sector.

With the new term of the European Commission beginning to take shape and in the midst of preparations for the Commission’s work programme, now is the time for stakeholders to open up with their expectations of the European policy agenda. In this context, the conference aimed to look at where the private sector and public sector can learn from each other.

How can SMEs ensure a better work-life balance and flexible working conditions, key factors for attracting female employees? What can be done more than simply raising awareness of the need for more women in work? Are quotas encouraging women to lead the way? Is Europe on course to closing the gender-pay gap? What is the role of men in gender equality? To discuss these questions, UNITEE and CESI brought together a diverse panel of speakers to draw on both national and European experiences of addressing the challenges facing gender equality in the workplace.

The debate was opened by Viviane TEITELBAUM, President of the European Women’s Lobby,  describing the role and work of the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) in tackling gender equality at work. She stressed that more needed to be done to make the economic case for gender equality, for example for women’s representation on boards, an issue currently being debated in the Council. The EWL is lobbying for quotas and is calling for legislation to be put in place with a sanctions procedure as a means of making real progress towards gender equality at work.

The debate should be broader than just gender equality, said Kerstin BORN-SIRKEL, Director at the Centre for European Policy Studies, underlining that diversity in the workplace as a whole is important. Understanding the public sector nature of CESI, she called on the public sector to lead by example. The new European Commission team nearly failed in this respect, with only 9 female commissioners. This is neither an improvement nor a step back from the previous Commission, despite good intentions to achieve a more balanced team.

What can trade unions do to help, asked Philippe KERAUDREN, Head of Unit Reflective Societies, DG Research and Innovation at the European Commission and Vice President of U4U,  who outlined the harsh realities facing unions, which are not the best examples being mostly male-dominated bodies. He went on to say that social dialogue is currently not, although it should be, an effective tool to address gender equality, with the EU institutions not respecting social dialogue internally.


Drawing on her experience of the Irish workforce, Fiona O’MALLEY,  a senior manager in the financial sector, said one of the greatest obstacles for women in the workplace is affordable childcare. With childcare costing the equivalent of a mortgage payment in Ireland, it is becoming increasingly unaffordable.

Describing the work of CESI’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality committee over the past year, Arnd BECKERS, policy advisor at CESI, focused on the gender pay gap, women in leading positions and structural barriers to gender equality in the workplace. These are topics which are repeatedly discussed and areas where more progress needs to be made. Working for a trade union whose membership lies heavily in the public sector, he made the case that women fare better in the public sector, not only in terms of representation but also in terms of working conditions. Austerity measures across the EU have fallen particularly hard on public services which have meant the impact on women has been harder.

Providing some closing remarks to the debate, Klaus HEEGER, Secretary General of CESI,  pointed to the fact that even though insights into gender equality may not be innovate, they are still relevant and there is still broad agreement that progress needs to be made. Sanctions with binding laws may be the only means of ensuring that real steps forward are made. He views the EU’s economic governance cycle as an example of where there is potential for promoting progress, seeing the European Semester’s country specific recommendations as a potential tool. However while in 2013, Austria was issued recommendations on the gender pay gap, in the 2014 recommendations there was no mention of the gender pay gap, despite the fact that the issue has not been effectively tackled. The EU has not enough in leading by example and change is needed in this respect. 

You can read a report from the event in full here.