A Woman’s Place is in Europe

In response to an invitation from the European Parliament Information Office in the UK,  in collaboration with the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations, my LA President, Heather Hawkes, and I attended a debate held on Friday 2 March at Europe House, Smith Square, London. This was being held as a run up to the 101st anniversary of International Women’s Day (8 March). Speakers from the political and business worlds were there to debate the following:

-What has the EU done so far to advance the cause of gender equality in Europe?
-What further measures are in the pipeline?
- Should Europe do more or does it need to interfere less when it comes to improving women’s lot, particularly in the workplace?

The panel consisted of:
Mary Honeyball, MEP (London, Lab), member of the Women’s Rights Committee
Marina Yannakoudakis, MEP (London, Con), member of the Women’s Rights Committee
Emma Reynolds, MP, Shadow Europe Minister
Heather McGregor, Director of Taylor Bennett and author of the Mrs.     Moneypenny column in the Financial Times

Moderator: Shirin Wheeler, the Record Europe, BBC

Mary Honeyball started the ball rolling by referring to the Treaty of Rome which first addressed the problem of discrimination, especially the pay gap between the sexes which, despite the regulations, still exists. Across Europe this equates to around a 20% difference between men and women, although it is higher in the UK at around 22%. She is therefore in favour of quotas in order to have equal representation of women on companies’ Boards of Directors. At present only 15% are women. Companies have to be forced to comply to achieve fairness. There should also be equal access to training in the workplace. A UK bill regarding full pay for maternity leave in still with the European Council but is probably not cost effective in the present economic climate.

Marina Yannakoudakis, whose background is in business, disagreed about the need for more legislation or quotas. This was tried in Norway, which is not in the EU, without success, as women have a different approach. Looking at the bigger picture, our main focus should be the empowerment of women, not just equal pay. Many women do not want to stay at home but should be able to go into business with a level playing field.

Emma Reynolds said that despite today being Equal Pay Day women in this country still earn less and own less than men. (A later comment on Face Book produced a statistic of an average hourly rate in 24 states of the European Union as 8.5 euros per hour for women, 10.43 euros for men). Women’s choice of whether or not to work is dependent on affordable child care. There is currently a 17 year high of women unemployed in the UK, due to their being hit harder by the recent cuts in public expenditure.

Heather McGregor was also against the idea of imposing quotas. She felt one has to smash the myth once and for all about women being able to’ have it all’. Female appointments to UK Boards of Directors have already gone up from 10 – 20%. Women wishing to succeed should seek advice, and make sure that once they reach the top they should then be prepared to mentor other women who are coming up behind them in the same way that men have acted in the past. Creating more legislation only complicates things for businesses. One should encourage, but using targets not threats.

These opening remarks were followed by a question and answer session. With regard to the introduction of quotas, Mary Honeyball replied that although Norway, which had introduced quotas, was experiencing difficulties, this had at least enabled women to make the breakthrough. A speaker for the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations stated that the quota system in Norway had also fundamentally changed the attitude of men as well as women.

All-women short-lists for parliamentary elections in this country always had a bad press but had certainly succeeded in allowing many more women to become MPs with over 100 Labour women, but only 17 Conservative. Mary Honeyball herself would not have got where she is now without them. Women are becoming impatient so one has to use force to achieve progress. She was in favour of introducing what are referred to as Temporary Positive Measures, but these should not be long-term.  It has been proved that women on Boards of Directors produce better results for a company because they understand the needs of customers, many of whom are probably women. On a recent cultural delegation to Palermo in Sicily it was disappointing to find that there were only men on both its national and local committees.
It was pointed out that most women on UK Boards of Directors happen to be American but Wales was singled out as making good progress in this area.

The choice of women NOT to work is going down. Both men and women should be given this choice. The question of the 4 weeks parental leave was raised. Ideally couples could share this, with mothers taking the first 2 weeks and fathers the latter part, but where the father earns the higher salary this might have to become an economic decision.
(The current meeting in New York of the UN Status of Women Committee is stressing the need for partnership between women and men).

On pensions it was stated that UK pensions are bad compared to the rest of Europe, especially for women. However, pensions are not covered by European legislation.

Age discrimination was also a problem particularly in the media and advertising. The EU committee on advertising could do more to prevent women being treated as sex objects. The new ‘Sun on Sunday’ still has a page 3 girl.

Considering the fact that 60% of graduates are women, there should be a good supply of talent but they should be given higher level of skills training, targets to aim for and mentoring to overcome any lack of confidence. There is still discrimination in the workplace against employing women, especially those of child-bearing age.
On the subject of violence against women and girls one should remember this can also apply to men. New EU legislation to deal with trafficking is something the UK has signed up to, bearing in mind that the UK (London in particular) is a major destination.

Marina Yannakoudakis stated that the European Parliament works best by sticking to the middle ground as opposed to going to extremes. She stressed the importance of networking between women. One has to try and change the existing culture by persuading men to relinquish power, perhaps through legislation. One should also raise women’s aspirations and encourage more women to study what are considered as ‘male’ subjects in education.

The debate was expertly handled by the moderator from the BBC while two screens, one at either end of the room, displayed live ‘blogging’ by Women’s Views on News, present at the meeting, apparently followed by 4,132 visitors throughout the day. Furthermore, other delegates’ ‘tweets’ (275) reached a staggering 45,500 Twitter users!

Sheila Youngs (CER)

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