Towards gender equality, at a snail's pace


Picture of Virginija Langbakk
Virginija Langbakk

Director of the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE)

Virginija Langbakk is Director of the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE)

It is 2018, but in Europe gender equality seems to be ‒ more than ever ‒ standing still at a crossroad.

On the positive side, women are increasingly referred to as a pool of ‘untapped potential’ that could give a new boost to jobs, digital growth and improve the social dimension of the European Union. A number of global campaigns, such as the #MeToo movement, are making gender equality challenges more visible. This is enabling more gender sensitive measures to be put in place to combat violence against women ‒ be it at home, in the workplace, in public areas or in cyber space.

A number of promising EU and national level policies dedicated to improving work-life balance and tackling the gender pay gap have also been put forward. At the same time, the Gender Equality Index developed by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), consistently reports that we are travelling at a ‘snail’s pace’ with reaching gender equality in Europe. Marginal progress, alongside worrying slips backwards in certain areas keeps the EU’s score for gender equality at 66.2 out of 100.

So when do we stop standing still and act faster?

In the EU today, women account for more than half of tertiary students. They are highly concentrated in study fields such as education, health or welfare, whereas men dominate technological studies, such as ICT and engineering. The current challenge is not about being better if specialised. It is about being worse when segregated.

A number of global campaigns, such as the #MeToo movement, are making gender equality challenges more visible

At a time of a profound digitalisation, the EU faces a major problem of how to keep its engines rolling. For example, there is a vast shortage of ICT specialists and a vast underrepresentation of women among them. Only 17 % of the eight million ICT specialists in the EU today are women. There is hardly any increase in the share of women over the last decade ‒ in some member states there was even a decrease. Parallel to this, there is an undersupply of men working in healthcare professions despite the fact that not all men would desire to be in technological occupations. This effectively means fewer people are available to choose from who can be leased to understaffed educational and care facilities.

There are numerous stereotypes that enforce gender divides in education and the labour market. Many men are not interested in taking up jobs in professions such as teaching or personal care due to lower pay. Many women do not get or accept technological jobs due to a potentially reduced likelihood in being hired or the lack in future career opportunities. In 2014, one in two male graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) roles could find a job matching their educational qualification. Only one third of women STEM graduates could do the same.

Additionally, women in tech jobs do not join just any company: they tend to concentrate around workplaces with more women. 35% of women and only 15% of men have jobs where there are an equal number of female and male colleagues who carry the same job title. Similarly, 36% of women and only 16% of men in ICT roles, have a woman as an immediate boss. The statistics show that women in tech jobs are more educated than men, but still end up in lower positions.

In order to break gender related barriers, one needs to start from an early age. For example, girls and boys need to have not only the same ICT skills, but they need to see and believe equally in prospects of STEM careers. In four EU member states, a mere 1-3% of teenage girls currently aspire to become ICT professionals when aged 30. In the remaining 24 states, the figure is less than 1%. Among teenage boys the picture is different, with the corresponding figures ranging from 3 % to as high as 15 %. This already shows vast forming gaps for the upcoming digital economies. If not tackled now, they will only widen in the future.

Another major challenge is the regular upscaling of skills, which is a prerequisite for a successful career in many sectors as dynamic as ICT. An EIGE research shows that men in ICT jobs benefit more frequently from training. For women who still tend to take a lion’s share of household and care responsibilities, it is hard to engage in training outside of office hours. In the long run, lack of life-long training not only reduces career prospects, but also explains why a larger share of women is exiting ICT jobs due to unfulfilled aspirations.

How can gender stereotypes be changed if in some areas of life we only meet women and in others only men?

The deeply rooted and unequal sharing of caring roles between women and men remains a primary impediment for work-life balance, including the ability to have and progress in one’s job. In this area, EIGE’s latest gender equality index even shows a negative trend to the detriment of women. Care duties persist as a major factor behind lower women’s labour market participation. This can result in full withdrawal from employment or reducing down to part-time work. For example, about 17% of women with tertiary STEM education and about 40% of women with vocational STEM education remain outside the labour force. Less than 10% of men are in a similar situation.

The future can be different and free from stereotypes. Consistently breaking segregation within the labour market can make a difference. For example, when compared to women in health professions, women in ICT indicate having a better pay, happier social environment and more flexible working time arrangements. Atypical hours, such as working in the evenings and at weekends, are also less common in ICT jobs. These facts are not yet well known and need to get higher visibility in order to tackle both gender and occupational stereotypes.

Lastly, the ‘untapped potential’ of men needs to be stressed alongside that of women. How can gender stereotypes be changed if in some areas of life we only meet women and in others only men? The more we consider ‘both sides of the argument’, the better results could be achieved for all. The way forward is not a simple one but it will be worth the effort to create sustaining futures.

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