[Check Against Delivery]
In it for the long haul: Fighting for women's rights
Gender Equality in Europe - An unfinished Business?
Rome, 24 October 2014
Ladies and gentlemen,
First of all, I would like to thank our hosts, the Italian Presidency, for making this conference possible. A broad range of EU and national representatives have shared their experiences and ideas here over the last two days - and there is a lot to reflect on.
On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, we can't deny that we have made huge progress on gender equality. Social patterns are moving away from a male bread-winner model to double-income families. Young women remain in education or vocational training for longer. Women have entered the labour market in great numbers and are contributing to Europe's economic growth and competitiveness. Many of these changes have been aided by political and regulatory pressure.
Over the last decades, equal treatment legislation has grown into a coherent legal framework. We have advanced gender equality in employment, research, and development cooperation. We have put money into promoting gender equality through financial programmes, such as the new Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme, and also through the Structural and Investment Funds. We have worked closely with Member States, social partners and NGOs. The European Parliament has been an important partner for change.
We have worked hard and we have results to show for it. Just look at our host country. Italy is one of the EU countries that has made great progress when it comes to women in decision making. Since 2010, the share of women on boards has risen by more than 14 percentage points to 18.6 per cent in April of this year, thanks to quota legislation that requires one third of board members to be women. This is a significant improvement in the position of women in business - and a good example for a lot of other Member States.
The need to stay positive
At this point, the question is: Can we be satisfied? Should we be satisfied? After all, we have come a long way and we are much better off today than we were 20 years ago.
Let us put the question differently: can your daughter be happy about being paid 16% less than her brother? Should she continue to spend on average 26 hours per week on care and household activities, compared with the 9 hours of her brother? She studied hard, possibly outperforming her brother. Should you not tell her not to invest too much because she will most likely work part-time, interrupt her career to care for others, have little chance to climb the career ladder, and might well end up with a pension 40% lower than that of her brother?
It is tempting to despair when you consider that this is still the reality for too many women. But I would like say to you today: Let us stay positive, and let us keep working. Entrenched attitudes and systemic prejudice will not disappear overnight. The kind of change we are striving for takes time.
I believe what we need most is perseverance - and optimism. Take the example of the top jobs in the economy. True, far too few women make it there: only 18.6 per cent of board members in the largest publicly listed companies across the EU are female, and less than 4 percent of companies have a female Chief Executive Officer. This is shameful - especially when you consider that 60 per cent of university graduates today are female.
But then look at where we have come from. In October 2003, only 8.5 per cent of board members were women. And change has accelerated considerably since a number of Member States started to promote gender equality in the boardroom, usually through legislation, and the European Commission announced that it was looking to do the same at EU level.
The glass ceiling may still be there, but it is starting to crack. Of course more progress is needed. That is why I have used the past few months to work hard to advance the proposed women on boards directive, together with the Italian Presidency. And I know that the incoming Commission will continue this effort.
Old and new challenges
This example, like the many others you have been discussing here over the past two days, shows that we need to be tenacious in tackling old challenges - as well as new ones.
We need a combination of childcare facilities, quality jobs with flexible working arrangements and parental leave that can be equally shared between women and men. We also need to address the gender pay gap and the gender pension gap.
It is necessary to anchor gender equality into the Europe 2020 Strategy which will be revised in 2015. This is a simple question of mathematics: to achieve the 75 percent employment target, we need more women in the labour market. But it is not only a question of quantity: it is also about quality jobs. Jobs that allow both women and men to be economically independent throughout their lives.
And finally, we need to step up our efforts to tackle a phenomenon that is as persistent as it is unacceptable: violence against women. In Europe, one in three women suffers physical and/or sexual violence at least once in her life. And female genital mutilation remains a big issue - we have to keep fighting to eradicate this barbaric practice.
Besides these old challenges, we have gained some insight into new ones. For example, new challenges arising from the digitalisation of our society. Violence, bullying and sexual exploitation of women and children are no less harmful online than they are offline. We need to find effective means of combatting these issues. At the same time, the digital economy also presents new opportunities, not least for a better reconciliation of work and family life.
Promoting gender equality on the global stage
Our ambitions will not stop at EU borders: this is a clear message from this conference, and I would like to thank Ms. Lakshmi Puri, the Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, for emphasising this point.
The 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action which we will celebrate next year, and the on-going negotiations on the post-2015 global agenda are a unique opportunity. An opportunity for the EU to affirm that it will continue to promote gender equality and human rights for every girl and woman in the world.
There is indeed still a lot to do, both in the EU and beyond its borders. Let us stay positive - and let us get to work!