Equality between men and women

Equality between women and men is one of the objectives of the European Union. Over time, legislation, case-law and changes to the Treaties have helped shore up this principle and its implementation in the EU. The European Parliament has always been a fervent defender of the principle of equality between men and women.

Legal basis

The principle that men and women should receive equal pay for equal work has been enshrined in the European Treaties since 1957 (today: Article 157 TFEU). Besides, Article 153 TFEU allows the EU to act in the wider area of equal opportunities and equal treatment in matters of employment and occupation. Within this framework, Article 157 TFEU furthermore authorises positive action to empower women. In addition, Article 19 TFEU enables legislation to combat all forms of discrimination, including on the basis of sex. Legislation against trafficking in human beings, in particular women and children, has been adopted on the basis of Articles 79 and 83 TFEU, and the Rights, Equality and Citizenship programme finances, among others, measures contributing to the eradication of violence against women, based on Article 168 TFEU.


The European Union is founded on a set of values, including equality, and promotes equality between men and women (Articles 2 and 3(3) TEU). These objectives are also enshrined in Article 21 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Besides, Article 8 TFEU gives the Union the task of eliminating inequalities and promoting equality between men and women through all its activities (this concept is also known as ‘gender mainstreaming’). The Union and the Member States have committed themselves, in Declaration No 19 annexed to the Final Act of the Intergovernmental Conference which adopted the Treaty of Lisbon, ‘to combat all kinds of domestic violence […], to prevent and punish these criminal acts and to support and protect the victims’.


a.Main legislation

EU legislation, mostly adopted by the ordinary legislative procedure, includes:

  • Directive 79/7/EEC of 19 December 1978 obliging Member States to progressively implement the principle of equal treatment for men and women in matters of social security;
  • Directive 92/85/EEC of 19 October 1992 introducing measures to improve the safety and health at work of pregnant workers and workers who have recently given birth or are breastfeeding;
  • Directive 2004/113/EC of 13 December 2004 implementing the principle of equal treatment between women and men in the access to and supply of goods and services;
  • in 2006, a number of former legislative acts were repealed and replaced by Directive 2006/54/EC of 5 July 2006[1] on the implementation of the principle of equal opportunities and equal treatment of men and women in matters of employment and occupation (recast). This directive defines direct and indirect discrimination, harassment and sexual harassment. It also encourages employers to take preventive measures to combat sexual harassment, reinforces the sanctions for discrimination, and provides for the setting-up within the Member States of bodies responsible for promoting equal treatment between women and men. At present, Parliament is seeking the revision of this directive as regards provisions on equal pay[2] and has adopted an implementation report on the basis of several studies commissioned by the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS);
  • Council Directive 2010/18/EU of 8 March 2010 implementing the revised Framework Agreement on parental leave concluded by BUSINESSEUROPE, UEAPME, CEEP and ETUC and repealing Directive 96/34/EC;
  • Directive 2010/41/EC of 7 July 2010 laying down objectives for the application of the principle of equal treatment between men and women engaged in an activity, including agriculture, in a self-employed capacity, and on the protection of self-employed women during pregnancy and motherhood, and repealing Council Directive 86/613/EEC;
  • Directive 2011/36/EU of 5 April 2011 on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims. This directive replaces Council Framework Decision 2002/629/JHA and provides for the approximation of sanctions for trafficking in human beings across Member States and of support measures for victims, and calls upon the Member States to ‘consider taking measures to establish as a criminal offence the use of services which are the objects of exploitation […] with the knowledge that the person is a victim [of trafficking]’ in order to discourage demand; it also establishes the office of the European anti-trafficking coordinator;
  • Directive 2011/99/EU of 13 December 2011 establishing the European Protection Order with the aim of protecting a person ‘against a criminal act by another person which may endanger his/her life, physical or psychological integrity, dignity, personal liberty or sexual integrity’ and enabling a competent authority in another Member State to continue the protection of the person in the territory of that other Member State; this directive is reinforced by Regulation (EU) No 606/2013 of 12 June 2013 on mutual recognition of protection measures in civil matters, which ensures that civil protection measures are recognised all over the EU;
  • Directive 2012/29/EU of 25 October 2012 establishing minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime, and replacing Council Framework Decision 2001/220/JHA.

b.Progress in case-law of the European Court of Justice (ECJ)

The ECJ has played an important role in promoting equality between men and women. The most notable judgments have been:

  • Defrenne II judgment of 8 April 1976 (Case 43/75): the Court recognised the direct effect of the principle of equal pay for men and women and ruled that the principle not only applied to the action of public authorities but also extended to all agreements which are intended to regulate paid labour collectively;
  • Bilka judgment of 13 May 1986 (Case 170/84): the Court ruled that a measure excluding part-time employees from an occupational pension scheme constituted ‘indirect discrimination’ and was therefore contrary to former Article 119 if it affected a far greater number of women than men, unless it could be shown that the exclusion was based on objectively justified factors unrelated to any discrimination on grounds of sex;
  • Barber judgment of 17 May 1990 (Case 262/88): the Court decided that all forms of occupational pension constituted pay for the purposes of Article 119 and the principle of equal treatment therefore applied to them. The Court ruled that men should be able to exercise their pension rights or survivor’s pension rights at the same age as their female colleagues;
  • Marschall judgment of 11 November 1997 (Case C-409/95): the Court declared that a national rule which, in a case where there were fewer women than men in a sector, required that priority be given to the promotion of female candidates (‘positive discrimination’) was not precluded by Community legislation, provided that the advantage was not automatic and that male applicants were guaranteed consideration and not excluded a priori from applying;
  • Test Achats judgment of 1 March 2011 (Case C-236/09): the Court declared the invalidity of Article 5(2) of Directive 2004/113/EC as being contrary to the principle of equal treatment between men and women in the access to and supply of goods and services. Consequently, for men and women, the same system of actuarial calculation has to be applied to determine premiums and benefits for the purposes of insurance.

c.Latest developments

Below is an overview of the most recent action taken by the EU in the field of equality between men and women.

1.The multiannual financial framework (MFF 2014-2020) and the Rights, Equality and Citizenship programme

The programme Rights, Equality and Citizenship finances projects aimed at achieving gender equality and ending violence against women (Article 4). Together with the Justice Programme (Regulation 2013/1382), it has been attributed EUR 15 686 million until 2020 (MFF Regulation 1311/2013) and consolidates six programmes of the 2007-2013 funding period, among them the Daphne III Programme (Decision 779/2007) and both the ‘Anti-discrimination and Diversity’ and ‘Gender Equality’ sections of the Programme for Employment and Social Solidarity (PROGRESS) (Decision 1672/2006/EC).

The annex thereto specifies that the promotion of gender equality will be funded together with other anti-discrimination measures under Group 1, to which a share of 57% of the financial allocations is attributed. Combating violence against women is included in Group 2, with 43% of the overall financial envelope of the programme.

For 2017, the budget line 33 02 02 (promoting non-discrimination and equality) has EUR 35 064 000 in commitment appropriations and EUR 24 000 000 in payments, which represents an increase in payments compared with 2015 or 2016 and means that the implementation of this programme is advancing. In addition, the budget line 33 02 01 has been allocated EUR 26 451 000 to contribute, among other objectives, to combating and protecting against all forms of violence against women.

A study published in autumn 2016 at the request of the FEMM committee provides an overview on the EU budget spent on gender equality[3] in selected Member States.

2.The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE)

In December 2006, the European Parliament and the Council established a European Institute for Gender Equality, based in Vilnius, Lithuania, with the overall objective of contributing to and boosting the promotion of gender equality, including gender mainstreaming in all EU and national policies. It also combats discrimination based on sex and raises awareness on gender equality by providing technical assistance to the European institutions through collecting, analysing and disseminating data and methodological tools (see the EIGE’s online Resource and Documentation Centre: http://eige.europa.eu/content/rdc).

3.The Women’s Charter and the Strategic engagement for gender equality 2016-2019

On 5 March 2010, the Commission adopted the Women’s Charter with a view to improving the promotion of equality between women and men in Europe and throughout the world[4].

In December 2015, the Commission published the Strategic engagement for gender equality 2016-2019 [5] as a follow-up and prolongation of the Commission Strategy for equality between men and women (2010-2015)[6].

The Strategic engagement focuses on the following five priority areas:

4.Gender Action Plan 2016-2020

On 26 October 2015, the Council adopted the ‘Gender Action Plan 2016-2020’[7], based on the Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) Joint Staff Working Document on ‘Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: Transforming the Lives of Girls and Women through EU External Relations 2016-2020’[8]. The new Gender Action Plan stresses ‘the need for the full realisation of women’s and girls’ full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms and the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls’.

5.Sustainable Development Goals

The United Nations General Assembly adopted on 25 September 2015 the resolution on the post-2015 development agenda entitled ‘Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’[9]. The 2030 Agenda entails 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 Targets, which came into force on 1 January 2016. The SDGs are built on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). However, in contrast to the MDGs, which were intended for action in developing countries only, the SDGs apply to all countries. SDG 5 ‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’ contains five Targets.

Role of the European Parliament

The European Parliament has played a significant role in supporting equal opportunity policies, in particular through its Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM). In the area of equal treatment on the labour market, Parliament acts on the basis of the ordinary legislative procedure (codecision), for example regarding:

  • the proposal for a directive on improving the gender balance among non-executive directors of companies listed on stock exchanges and related measures (COM(2012) 0614) (see Parliament’s position at first reading, adopted at the end of 2013)[10].
  • the revision of Directive 92/85/EEC (see above); at first reading[11] Parliament advocated a longer period of fully-paid maternity leave, namely 20 weeks[12]. As there was no agreement reached between Parliament and the Council on the Commission proposal, the Commission has now withdrawn the proposal and replaced it with a Roadmap for the initiative ‘A new start to address the challenges of work-life balance faced by working families’[13].

In addition, Parliament contributes to overall policy development in the area of gender equality through its own-initiative reports, and by drawing the attention of other institutions to specific issues, including:

  • combating violence against women by adopting a legislative own-initiative report requesting a legislative initiative on the part of the Commission on the basis of Article 84 TFEU promoting and supporting the action of Member States in the field of prevention of violence against women and girls (VAWG); this resolution includes a number of recommendations[14]; the FEMM committee has established a special working group to follow up this resolution;
  • empowerment of women and girls: International Women’s Day 2017 focused on the economic empowerment of women, and the FEMM committee adopted an own-initiative report on the issue;
  • gender equality in international relations, in particular regarding the developments since the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ in North Africa[15].

Parliament is also seeking gender mainstreaming in the work of all its committees[16]. To this end, two networks on gender mainstreaming have been established, which are coordinated by the FEMM committee. The network of Chairs and Vice-Chairs for Gender Mainstreaming brings together MEPs who support the introduction of a gender dimension into the work of their respective committees. They are supported by a network of Gender Mainstreaming Administrators in each committee secretariat. The High-Level Group on Gender Equality promotes training and awareness-raising about gender mainstreaming among the staff of the European Parliament and the political groups.

[1]The recast directive also repeals Directive 76/207/EEC, which had been amended by Directive 2002/73/EC.

[2]See: European Parliament resolution of 24 May 2012 with recommendations to the Council on application of the principle of equal pay for male and female workers for equal work or work of equal value — Texts adopted, P7_TA(2012) 0225.

[3] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/571393/IPOL_STU(2016)571393_EN.pdf

[4] http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=URISERV:em0033

[5]Commission Staff Working Document – Strategic engagement for gender equality 2016-2019 (SWD(2015) 0278).

[6]The reflections on the next strategy started in September 2014 with a workshop entitled ‘A new strategy for gender equality post-2015’, which launched the preparation of the FEMM committee’s own-initiative report leading to the adoption of Parliament’s resolution of 9 June 2015 on the EU Strategy for equality between women and men post-2015 (Texts adopted, P8_TA(2015) 0218). The contributions to the workshop are available on the European Parliament’s website.

[7]Council Conclusions on the Gender Action Plan 2016-2020, 26 October 2015.

[8]21.9.2015, SWD(2015) 0182.

[9]Resolution 70/1 adopted by the UN General Assembly on 25 September 2015.

[10]European Parliament resolution of 20 November 2013 on gender balance among non-executive directors of companies listed on stock exchanges — Texts adopted, P7_TA(2013) 0488.

[11]European Parliament resolution of 20 October 2010 on improvements in the safety and health at work of pregnant workers and workers who have recently given birth or are breastfeeding — Texts adopted, P7_TA(2010) 0373.

[12]For a comparative analysis of the legal provisions in the Member states, please see the European Parliament’s Policy Department Citizens Rights and Constitutional Affairs report ‘Maternity, paternity and parental leave: data related to duration and compensation rates in the European union’ published in 2014, available on the European Parliament’s website.

[13] http://ec.europa.eu/smart-regulation/roadmaps/docs/2015_just_012_new_initiative_replacing_maternity_leave_directive_en.pdf

[14]European Parliament resolution of 25 February 2014 on combating violence against women — Texts adopted, P7_TA(2014) 0126

[15]European Parliament resolution of 12 March 2013 on the situation of women in North Africa — Texts adopted, P7_TA(2013) 0075.

[16]See: European Parliament resolution of 13 March 2003 on gender mainstreaming in the EP — Texts adopted, P5_TA(2003) 0098.

Martina Schonard