International Women’s Day is celebrated on 8 March every year. The celebration has its origins in the early 20th Century, when no country in Europe (with the exception of Finland) allowed women to vote in national elections. Women’s rights have obviously increased substantially since then, but there is still a “glass ceiling” keeping them from the very top positions.
In 2003, the European Commission started keeping a database to monitor the numbers of men and women in key decision-making positions in Europe. The statistics show that only 3% of the largest publicly-listed companies in the EU have a female CEO, whilst only 7% have a female chairperson of the board. In politics and finance, the statistics are only slightly better – there are only two female presidents and four women prime ministers in the EU-28, whilst only one central bank governor (Cyprus’ Chrystalla Georghadji) is a woman.
What is keeping women from top leadership roles in Europe? We had a comment sent in from Silke from Germany, a woman in the middle of her career. She told us that in almost every job interview she’s had, she has been asked whether she plans to have children (the implication being that she would not be hired if she did). She said this is almost unbelievable, and this attitude seems to be one of the biggest challenges holding women back professionally.
To get a reply, we took Silke’s comment to Valérie Kinoo, a Women Entrepreneurship Facilitator at transforma bxl, and author of an article on increasing female participation in the European labour market in the latest issue of Europe’s World.
What would she say to Silke?
Well, I totally agree with her. It’s a really big problem that women often face in their careers, and that’s why it’s good that the European Commission has a Directive to protect pregnant workers. But we should also be encouraging men to take more paternity leave as well, and we should be talking about “parental leave” instead of just “maternity leave”, so that men are also taking care of children.
Because, at the moment, employers only ask such questions to women and not to men, and this shouldn’t be the case. So, it’s about protecting the rights of pregnant workers, encouraging men to care of children as well, and having more care services available for children.
We also had a comment come in from Peter, who argued that, on average, women often earn less money for performing exactly the same jobs as men. He believed that measures need to be put in place to promote greater transparency in relation to pay rates, in order to close the gender pay gap.
We put Peter’s comment to Francesca Bettio, Professor of Economics at the University of Siena, Coordinator of the European Network of Experts on Gender Equality (ENEGE), and author of an article in Europe’s World arguing that better gender equality in Europe’s workforce would boost economic growth.
What would she say to Peter?
Transparency policies have been put in place in some European countries, and there are various tools available where women can disclose their salary to see if they are being paid less than men. However, this on its own does not solve the problem.
I think one has to go to the root of the problem, which is the division of labour within the family. And, here, I must say that men have got a huge role to play, meaning they should be more willing to share housework and especially care work, and sometimes even at a small, temporary cost to their careers. So, I believe that the role of men at home is as important as transparency in the workplace.
Finally, we had a comment sent in by Tiago, who said he was worried that unreasonable expectations are being placed on young women today. Tiago believes that women are being made to feel like failures if they decide not to pursue a career, and that women should be given autonomy to do what they want, including not pursuing a career.
How would Valérie Kinoo respond?
If a woman wants to stay at home and wants to take care of children, then it’s her decision. If she wants a career, then our society should give her the opportunity to do so.
I would agree with Tiago that there is a lot of pressure on young women today, and they’re increasingly facing problems that were not common in the past. For example, more and more young women are suffering from stress and related health problems, and burn-out. A lot of young women today are facing unemployment and high personal debt, because they borrow money for their education, but I do not agree that this means women don’t want careers. Instead, I think society should work to take this pressure off women and offer them solutions.
And how would Professor Francesca Bettio reply?
I can tell Tiago that there is actually a great deal of pressure from the other side: pressure to stay at home and be a mother. So, I absolutely agree that women should be free to choose what they feel like. They should be free to choose to be mothers and to work, just as men should be free to choose to be fathers and to work.
So, I agree in principle, but I would like to turn the question on its head, because this is a question that is always asked about women. People always underline that women should not be pressured to be workers, as if it is only women who should fill the role of parenting instead of working, whereas actually men have two roles as well. Very few people raise the question of whether there is too much pressure on men to work, and whether they are made to feel like failures if they do not have a career. It is just assumed that men will work. Why don’t we ask ourselves whether men are really free to choose whether they want to stay at home or have a career?
Why are so few women in top leadership roles in Europe? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions!