Gender equality has been within the core values of the European Union from the beginning of the European project, since article 119 of the Treaties of Rome (1957) introduced the principle of equal pay for men and women. Nowadays, it is still part of the Treaties: articles 2 and 3 of the TEU explicitly mention the commitment of the Union towards “equality between women and men”, while articles 8 and 10 of the TFEU state that the EU shall aim to combat discrimination and inequalities “based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation”. Equality between women and men is also included as part of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Furthermore, 15 directives were adopted between 1975 and 2010 with the objective of ensuring the equal treatment of men and women at work, prohibiting discrimination in social security schemes, setting out minimum requirements on parental leaves, providing protection to pregnant workers or recent mothers and setting out rules on access to employment, working conditions, remuneration as well as legal rights for the self-employed.

Given this legal framework, one could assume that the EU keeps having a very strong role in promoting gender equality, and that progressive steps are being taken towards this aim. However, experts in the field speak about a transition “from emergence to dismantling” in this area, referring to the fact that gender equality policies are, apparently, no longer a priority for the Union. There are indeed different elements pointing towards such claim, and this article will focus on three of them to illustrate this transition. The first is that, while a great part of the current objectives in the field relate to labor-market elements such as lowering the gender pay gap, achieving better conditions for a work life balance or enhancing women role in economic decision making; the Gender Equality department of the Commission has progressively been moved from Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities (where it was located until 2009) towards its current location within Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality. In practice, this shift from DG Employment to DG Justice has had an impact in the type of measures and policies initiated by the Commission, which has now less power to influence Member States labor policies and is focusing more on soft measures.

A second example of the diminishing importance of the topic in the Union’s agenda is the lack of collaboration among institutions, a fact that some voices blame the Commission for. The current strategy for the period 2016-2019, the “Strategic Engagement for Gender Equality”, is only a Commission working document, and not a EU strategy, in spite of the pressures coming from the European Parliament asking for a true inter-institutional document with a more comprehensive approach. The Council of Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs has also stressed the same demand. In the outcome document of a meeting in December 2015, there is a statement saying that a “large number of member states stressed that a formal Strategy endorsed by the Commission was needed and expressed their disappointment in having received an informal working document instead”.

Finally, the reticence coming from Member States towards binding measures affecting companies is not helping either. The Commission proposal from 2012 for a directive setting a 40% objective of women in executive boards, approved by the European Parliament, has not been able to find an agreement in the Council, in spite of the institution recognizing that “enhancing women’s participation in economic decision-making is essential to promote equality between women and men in our societies and would be beneficial to our economies”. In general, Member States seem reticent to adopt measures coming from European level which affect their labor market policies, or that may affect companies in their countries.

Why has gender equality stopped being a priority? We would like to think that it responds to the fact that policies in the area are no longer necessary. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and the last report from the Commission on the topic shows that women are still lagging behind in many aspects. The employment rate for women is systematically lower than that of men (a difference of 11 points), and they are still paid 16% less per hour of work, while their pension is 40% lower than men’s pension on average. Furthermore, women are still the ones who carry most of the unpaid work at home, as well as most childcare duties. Labor markets are highly segregated due to this fact: women are more likely to work part-time and in lower-quality jobs. This also has a strong impact in economic decision-making: even if the numbers are improving, still only 4.3% of CEOs of the largest companies in Europe are women, and the figure only rises up to 22.7% of executive board members.

Policy measures can, and should, be taken in order to achieve real gender equality in compliance with European values and treaties. However, this cannot be done without raising awareness on the topic, to make companies understand the benefits of strengthening equality within their organizations. Institutional cooperation is also needed: the Commission should work on a true European Strategy which can be engaged by the Council and the Parliament; and Member States should work harder to make equality possible in their labor markets. Only under these conditions would Gender Equality go from dismantling to being a priority again.