Preventing harassment and discrimination, protecting the victims of such behaviour, safeguarding women's and men's rights on their return from maternity or paternity leave: these are some of the achievements of the new EU directive on equal treatment of women and men. But while new gender roles in the family and society have prompted the EU to tackle some forms of discrimination, much remains to be done before the goal of equal pay for equal work is reached.
When the European Commission proposed revising a 25-year old directive in July 2000, MEPs argued that the new draft did not sufficiently reflect the reality of women's lives at work. But, in its role as co-legislator, Parliament was able to influence the shape of the new directive. At its first reading of this legislation, it fought for positive action to improve the chances of members of 'the under-represented sex' (often women) to do particular jobs. It is thanks to MEPs that the new directive instructs national governments to set up bodies to promote equal treatment of men and women as well as providing for legal protection of victims of sex discrimination.
Parliament bargained with the Council every step of the way over this directive, even taking it to the 'conciliation' stage of the legislative process. In April 2002 the two institutions agreed on a final version which takes better account of working conditions and family commitments. As of 2005, when the directive has been transposed into national law, it will serve as an important socio-political tool for the enlarged EU.
‘Sexual harassment’ now has a definition for the first time at Community level, as a situation ‘where any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature occurs, with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, in particular when creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment’. The directive also defines ‘direct discrimination’, ‘indirect discrimination’ and ‘harassment’ in general.
Women can now obtain help if they suffer harassment, including sexual harassment, at the workplace, while anyone supporting victims of sexual discrimination or harassment will receive similar protection. Employers and training departments are also required to take preventive measures to tackle these problems.
Maternity and paternity rights
The new directive outlaws discrimination against women who are pregnant or take maternity leave. But Parliament always wanted women and men to have the right to go back to the same job, or an equivalent one, at the end of their maternity, paternity or adoption leave, where such leave is authorised by the Member States.
The new directive also deals with equal access to work, training and promotion at work. ‘Positive measures’ are envisaged, i.e. specific advantages for the sex that it under-represented in a given form of work. The Member States must set up bodies to monitor equality, and legal or administrative procedures must be put in place to penalise violations of the directive.
Still no equal pay for equal work
The slogan ‘Equal pay for equal work’ has been around for some time - in fact since the 1950s! Despite the adoption of a European directive on equal pay for male and female employees in 1975, many women today are still paid very much less than men for identical work. The European Parliament has repeatedly criticised national governments for foot-dragging over applying the 1975 directive and has pressed the European Commission to take more decisive action.
In a resolution adopted in September 2001 the European Parliament commented that the wage gap between women and men in the EU was 28% on average. Even after taking account of structural differences in the labour market as regards men and women, including age, training, occupation and career pattern, women's pay is still 15% lower on average than men's. MEPs argued ‘this wage gap of 15% on average can only be explained by value discrimination mechanisms, which is unacceptable’. They therefore called on the Commission to take action, including an overhaul of the 1975 directive.
Then, in a resolution adopted in July 2002, Parliament called in broader terms on the Commission to update all the directives on equal treatment for men and women, not only on pay but also on social security, employment, working conditions and combining work and family commitments. After all, unequal pay is not the only structural problem women face: the employment rate of women (54%) is still lower than that of men, while eight out of ten part-time workers are women.
Lastly, turning to the draft Constitution for the EU compiled by the Convention on the Future of Europe, MEPs pushed - in the end successfully - for the principle of male-female equality to be included among the fundamental 'values' of the Union. This should in the long term strengthen the legal justification for further EU measures to put the principle into practical effect.