Europe’s inequality problem

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“We tend to think that equality happens on its own but actually we need active (legislative) measures to tackle the most striking inequalities in Europe such as participation in political decision-making and gender pay gap.”

Sirpa Pietikäinen, on GovFaces

The European Union has become a more vocal and important actor in fields of social policy and human rights. It is actively trying to tackle problems of social inequality in their Member States and creating a Europe that is based on inviolable human rights such as equality and freedom. These concepts are unfortunately not a reality for all citizens in the EU and upholding them remains a significant challenge in the way of growth and prosperity. One of the most pressing and well documented social problems is gender inequality and the end of discrimination based on sexual orientation. A recent vote in the European Parliament (EP) on the increased protection for undocumented women migrants was passed with a small majority, which signals perhaps the ineffectual way in which these matters are being resolved. Not only does this regard migrants that often become victims of exploitation and abuse, but for a large part of the population in the EU, discrimination and biased treatment is a daily reality.

Economic and workrelated inequality

The Gender Equality Index Report showed that the full time participation of women working was only at 41% opposed to 56% of men, leaving women more vulnerable of economic dependency and insecurity. Women often have the main charge  and economic responsibility of children which makes their financial situation a paramount for their quality of life. In addition, women often earn less than men. 

Article 157 in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union states that:

each Member State shall ensure that the principle of equal pay for male or female workers for equal work or work of equal value is applied.

Recent statistics show that this is far from the case, and figures from 2010 revealed that within the EU there was on average a 20% difference of income between men and women. In fact, 2013 figures from the National office of Statistics showed that within the UK, there is a growing gender pay gap. A newly published study in France shows that women on average earn 42% less than their male partner and that this is regarded as one of the main social challenges that not only France, but the EU needs to be concerned with.

Women are underrepresented in certain sectors such as technology, business and management, whereas men are underrepresented in health, social work and education. This gender segregation in work sectors is also a contributing factor to inequality in pay levels between men and women. In its goals for 2020, the EU has highlighted the importance of women working and receiving equal opportunity, treatment, and pay. Even though there may be a better future for women in the workplace, however long it seems to take to get there, Europe still has to tackle a more serious and even more worrying problem that involves widespread abuse and violence towards certain social groups.

Protection of exposed groups

On March 5th a report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) uncovered that around one third of all women in the European Union (around 62 million) had experienced physical or sexual abuse since the age of 15. The report also uncovered high statistics of rape, sexual harassment, psychological abuse, domestic violence. Even more worryingly was  that around 62% of incidents of assault and violence by a partner was never reported to the police or any other help organization. 

Violence towards women is not only a major problem among the people that we know of, but it targets especially those that are unseen. The EP recently voted on the increased security of female migrants to have rights of medical attention and security. One of the champions for these groups is Romanian MEP Norica Nicolai. She has said that the proposal was

 “a significant step in raising awareness and achieving progress in securing the respect of the basic human rights for a category of individuals which is often unfairly overlooked due to their uncertain legal situation”.

 But it is not only undocumented migrants, but people who are rightful citizens of their Member State and the EU. One such group is the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender society (LGBT).

LGBT treatment and rights

The LGBT community also experience widespread discrimination and abuse because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. FRA found in their survey from 2013 that almost half of the respondents felt personally discriminated against, but only 10% reported it. Half of them said that they avoided public places and two thirds reported that they did not hold hands with their partner in public. 20% of LGBT persons and 29% of transgender people said that they had been discriminated against by their employer or when looking for a job, even though this is against EU legislation.

This seems to be the crux of the problem of properly eradicating issues of inequality in the EU. Even though it is the right of each Member State to decide their immigration laws and levels of minimum wage, inequality reaches beyond the state and becomes a European issue. Sirpa Pietikainen argued in one of her responses on GovFaces that the issue of equality is not an issue of subsidiarity but a matter of fundamental rights that need to be secured for everyone. The EU proposed in 2008  a  Directive on equal treatment that has been pending ever since. Such signs of ineffectual policy processes signal that the EU is still very far away from reaching its goals. If only a few MEPs are willing to care for these issues, and the Member States are unable to make the necessary changes or let the EU decide for them, then what in reality can ever change?

The problems of inequality are manifold, and have in turn more sides than this article has tried to highlight. What it boils down to is how they are tackled. Who is responsible? Who has the power to act? The most worrying about all these issues is the lack of trust people who experience inequality and unfair treatment have in the system, so that incidents of abuse and discrimination go unreported. If the EU wants to create a Europe based on freedom and equality, now is the time for it.


Written by Marie Gjerde Rolandsen

Items posted on the Press Review and Analysis & Opinion sections do not necessarily reflect the views of GovFaces.