Legally, men and women are equal in Europe. That equality is enshrined not just in national laws, but at the international level in the UN Convention on Human Rights, which declares: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.
However “equality” seems to mean different things to different people. So-called “men’s rights” activists argue that feminism is a cancer upon society, while nationalist-populist parties call for a return to “traditional” gender roles.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in by Christian, who believes that equality between men and women already exists as strict laws are in place. So, according to him, any differences in things like pay or employment as purely a result of personal decisions. Is he right?
To get a response, we spoke to Dagmar Schumacher, Director of the UN Women Brussels Office. What would she say? Are women already equal to men?
Unfortunately, this is not right. First of all, we have not achieved gender equality in any country in the world, so we still have a long way to go. There has been, of course, a lot of progress over the last few decades but there is a danger that not a single country will reach in time the goals set by the Agenda 2030 in terms of gender equality. We are seeing a backlash on certain issues including on sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Gender inequalities goes far beyond personal decisions because they are the expression of institutionalized inequalities. The political environment and existing policies are key in setting the agenda for women and men, girls and boys, and the society at large. It therefore goes beyond the individual even though obviously, culture, traditions and gender stereotypes do have a strong impact at the individual level. To come back to Christian’s question, personal decisions are obviously crucial to ensure that there is gender equality in your household, in your family or even to change mindsets in your community, but again, if the legislation is discriminatory, you will lack the legislative leverage to ensure gender equality. For instance, legislation on domestic violence is a clear indication of this necessary approach. If you do not have a law that prohibits and domestic violence, rising against domestic violence in a household becomes much more difficult. Laws need to ensure equality both in public and private spheres, because even though the individual is key to gender equality, we simply cannot only rely on personal decisions to achieve such an important goal.
Next up, we had a comment sent in from Julian, who argues that sexism is still ubiquitous and, in fact, is witnessing a political resurgence. Are we going backwards when it comes to gender equality?
We put this comment to Emma Rainey. She organises the Brussels Binder, a database of Brussels-based female experts that aims to improve diversity on panels and in other policy debates, so that the “manel” becomes a thing of the past. What would she say?
For me, we’ve never been fully 100% there on gender equality. We’ve progressed over the last number of years, but we’re at the point where we’ve stagnated and haven’t progressed from where we are over the past decade.
We have these right-wing parties coming into certain Member States in the EU, in the likes of Poland and Hungary, and even not extreme right-wing but social conservatives play a big part in stagnating gender equality. So, we haven’t moved but there has been an attack, as well, on gender equality, especially in these countries; in Hungary, for example, the situation of banning Gender Studies and all these ‘family welfare’ policies that are supposedly designed to empower women but are really just about making women into walking incubators.
Also, a big part of feminism, in my opinion, is about monitoring what we have already won. Making sure that we have this win in place still, and ensuring that we don’t backtrack.
Finally, what would Dagmar Schumacher say to Julien’s comment?
While Julien does have a point, I also want to stay positive and repeat that we have seen a lot of progress in terms of gender equality. Statistics show that gaps in some sectors such as the pay gap are – even though very slowly- closing. At the same time, yes indeed, we do see a trend of backlash and we do see backsliding on certain rights we are taking for granted in progressive countries. In this regard, sexism is indeed the expression of these rights being questioned and we see encouragement of sexism through rampant misogyny and gender-based discrimination. Today, even the words gender or gender equality are being questioned in some European countries.
On the positive side, since the #MeToo uprising, we have seen a lot of movement building around the topic of fighting sexism in all its forms. It is now widely known that women face sexual harassment in the workplace, in their private life and in their public life. It is not necessarily getting better, it’s rather getting worse in certain areas such as in politics. However, building on this #MeToo movement, we have a wonderful opportunity to make a difference in the context of gender equality because next year, we will have the anniversary of the very progressive Beijing.
Declaration and Platform for Action from 1995. This will be a unique opportunity to give another push on gender equality while also taking stock on what was achieved and what remains to be done. This anniversary will bring heads of states, governments, the private sector, civil society, the academic world and global citizens together to push for gender equality. Finally, may it be to fight against sexism of for gender equality, we count on men to particularly engage as equality would benefit the entire society.
Do you believe in equality between men and women? Do we only have equality on paper? What else needs to change for true gender equality? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!