The College of Europe this year has borne witness to a few divisive arguments on the issue of gender equality. These discussions have ranged from the gender pay gap to the implicit gendered biases and stereotypes that we internalise unconsciously. SAGE (Student Association for Gender Equality) held events discussing the gendered implications of EU policy as well as our daily experiences of the impact of gendered stereotypes on our lives as young men and women. Additionally, for the first time this year in the College, we had the opportunity to take a class on Gender Equality and Social Inequalities in Europe. The remarkable Agnes Hubert, who worked in the European Commission for decades on issues such as equal opportunities and women’s rights, gave us a fascinating insight into EU gender equality policy. While these social and academic activities have been both worthwhile and effective, they were largely isolated from our larger experience of learning in the College.
Simply put, EU policy is gendered in both input and outcome. Without an understanding of this, even on a basic level, our ability to be the effective policy-makers that the College has told us that we will be is compromised. Men and women have experienced the economic crisis and subsequent austerity policies, the refugee crisis and climate change differently. Reproductive rights, parental leave and violence against women are also thorny issues which are broadly overlooked at the European level. In order to make better policy to combat these crises, we need to factor gendered differences into our analyses and formulation of solutions.
The gendered nature of the economic crisis and austerity policies is a clear example of the gendered implications of crises and the policies implemented to combat them. Women use public services disproportionately more than men and men tend to pay greater amounts of tax due to higher levels of income on average. Thus, in austerity policies the ratio between lower expenditure on public services and increasing taxation can create a gendered outcome. In cases where public services are reduced drastically while taxation is only raised marginally, there can be a significantly greater impact on women. In the 2010 UK budget, £5.8 billion or 72% of £8.1 billion in austerity cuts were carried by women. In Greece between 2000 and 2005, 17.4% of women lost their jobs in the public service compared to 8% of men.
The gendered nature of climate change should also be highlighted, especially at a time when climate change is becoming ever more pressing and the political decisions on how to resolve it even more vital. Women are both impacted differently by climate change and contribute differently to it compared to men. This is caused by varied interaction with the surrounding environment, gender-differentiated domestic roles, gender gaps in pay, education and health, and unequal access to services and resources. In the EU, an example is that single men in Greece consume 39% more energy resources than single women. Inclusion of gendered considerations in climate change policy means that mitigation and adaptation policies will be more effective. Connected to this is gendered nature of the refugee crisis. Women are particularly vulnerable to violence and sex trafficking in the dangerous conditions faced by refugees. Greater protection of vulnerable refugee women would allow for a more effective response to the refugee crisis.
Violence against women remains one of the most striking examples of gender inequality today in the EU. While a lack of comprehensive statistics is rife, it’s still possible to observe a distinct rise in domestic abuse rates across Europe under the adverse economic conditions wrought by the economic crisis. This appears to be largely due to increases in unemployment and economic instability within households. However, awareness about this issue remains remarkably low, even amongst policy-makers. This is quite frankly shocking considering that 154,000 women were victims of physical or sexual violence between 2009 and 2011 in France alone.
In Europe today we are faced with great diversity in social policy and life experiences across member states. There are few places where this is clearer than in the case of reproductive rights. While abortion services have been widely available in most EU member states for many decades, abortion is not allowed even in cases of rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormality or where there is a significant threat to the health of the pregnant woman in Ireland and Malta. This has resulted in 20,000 Irish women having travelled to the UK in the last four years to gain access to the medical procedure. This means that women who cannot leave the country due to financial, practical or legal reasons are trapped, sometimes dangerously so, in unwanted pregnancies. Awareness of the different rights possessed by women across Europe deserves greater awareness and unity to face these inequalities.
These examples provide merely a brief introduction into how gender can play a significant role in the efficacy of public policy. At the College of Europe, there is a worrying lack of awareness, surprising amongst such politically aware students, about how gendered differences impact policy. In a time where greater unity is so desperately needed across Europe and where innovative solutions are vital for the survival and success of the EU, we should be taking notice of the inequalities between sections of society and the impact that these differences can have in both the outcome and formation of policy. This is knowledge and awareness that I hope all College of Europe graduates will bring with them to their future careers.