With 16% of the working year left, November 3rd symbolizes the day when women in the EU stop earning money compared to their male peers. Known as the EU Equal Pay Day, it is marked each year by the Commission with Europe-wide information activities that draw attention to the size, root causes, and general inertia of the gender pay gap.
Despite significant gains over the last couple of decades, women in the European Union still earn around 16.2% less than men. Unfortunately, the rate of improvement in the pay gap has stalled over the past few years. This means that unless faster progress is made, the pay gap is likely to persist until the next millennium.
Most Southern European countries have gender pay gaps below the EU average. In fact, in Italy, women earn just 5.3% less than men. However, smaller pay gaps are generally the result of lower rates of female participation in the workforce and shouldn’t be taken as evidence of a more progressive labour market. At 17.5%, Portugal is the only Southern European country with a gender pay gap larger than the EU average.
Why has the gender pay gap proved so difficult to close? Labour markets are highly segregated with women often concentrated in sectors or roles that pay less than jobs traditionally associated with male workers. For example, while administrative staff tend to be composed of female workers, only 6.3% of CEOs in the EU are women. As well, since women are often the primary caregivers in their families, many women can only work part-time. Finally, women are more likely than men to take parental leave, thereby interrupting their careers and reducing their earning power.
In a joint press release addressing this year’s EU Equal Pay Day, First Vice-President Frans Timmermans and Commissioners Marianne Thyssen and Vera Jourová, stated that “Women and men are equal. This is one of the EU’s founding values. But women still effectively work for two months unpaid each year, compared to their male colleagues. We cannot accept this situation any longer.”
In recognition of this persistent inequality, the EU has adopted the EU Action Plan 2017-2019. It includes 24 action points to address issues such as segregation in the labour market, the ‘care penalty’, the low-value frequently attached to women’s skills and responsibilities, stereotypes, and the glass ceiling. The Commission will also assess whether additional legal measures are required to enforce existing EU rights.
Additionally, the EU Commission has put forward a proposal to reform parental leave. Its Work-Life proposal would provide fathers with at least 10 days of professional leave when a child is born. They have also recommended making paid parental leave a non-transferrable right to encourage more men to take time off work and reduce the disruption to their partners’ careers. While negotiations with the European Council and Parliament are on-going, the hope is that an agreement will be reached by the end of the year.
Individual member states are also taking the initiative to combat the gender pay gap. For example, France has announced plans to impose sanctions on companies that fail to close their gender pay gap over the next three years. In Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has expressed a desire to hold a parliamentary debate on bills that will tackle wage inequality and has proposed increasing both paternal and maternal leave to 16 weeks. Finally, in October Malta’s National Commission for the Promotion of Equality launched a two-year project to support women’s economic independence.
It must be said that although the gender pay gap is a relevant metric for identifying inequality, it is imperfect. The indicator only concerns salaried workers and therefore cannot be used as an overall measure of gender inequality. Thus, if the EU and its member states are committed to promoting equality between its citizens, closing the gender pay gap is just one of many necessary steps.