International Women’s Day 2013

318th March is International Women’s Day, so it’s a good time to have a look at how women in Europe are doing. 

Last week the Socialists & Democrats in the European Parliament launched our Manifesto for International Women’s Day.  We want policies that focus on five key areas where women are disproportionately affected: the gender pay gap; poverty; unemployment; precarious and part-time employment; and violence against women. 

There’s clearly plenty of room for improvement.  On average women in Europe still earn 16.2% less than men and with women occupying nearly 70% of public sector jobs, they’re being hardest hit by public sector cuts.  

Meanwhile, cuts to health and social care services mean more caring responsibilities are shifting back to households, again impacting more on women.  Budget cuts have also meant less support for the most vulnerable women, such as shelters for women experiencing domestic violence.  It’s a shocking fact that in 21st century Europe, 7 women die every day as a result of domestic violence. 

Sadly, this doesn’t seem to bother many of my fellow British politicians.  Rather than promoting women’s rights, the UK Government, and the Tories in particular, seem more concerned with taking away rights from all workers. 

When David Cameron talks about ‘repatriating’ powers from Brussels, it’s social and employment policy he has in his sights.  In the UK, I don’t think we realise just how many of our rights at work are provided by EU legislation.  Things like parental leave – both maternity and paternity – are based in EU law.  As is the Pregnant Workers Directive, which gives added health and safety protection to pregnant women, as well as the right to take time off to attend medical appointments. 

There’s also the Working Time Directive, which limits the number of hours your employer can expect you to work and gives you the right to four weeks paid holiday a year.  These are rights that help to ensure working is more family friendly and make employment more accessible for women. 

Family friendly employment policies are what we need if we are to encourage more women to seek top jobs, and this is where we come to the good news for European women this year. 

In November the European Commission proposed legislation that would introduce a 40% quota for the number of women on company boards.  Currently women represent only 15% of non-executive board members, and around 9% of executive board members. 

Contrary to predictable objections from those on the right, this isn’t about promoting women based on their gender rather than their ability.  The report calls on companies to use transparent selection procedures and objective qualification criteria, to ensure a fair opportunity for everyone.  There’s certainly no shortage of talented women – according to the European Business School’s Women on Board Initiative, there are 7,000 highly qualified women with professional experience ready to take over a board position. 

I’d also like to see more women seeking election to political office.  In Europe, with women making up 31% of MEPs, we’re doing better than most national parliaments, but there’s still some way to go.  

It’s only by having more women involved in designing legislation, that we will get genuinely women friendly policies.  Cuts to jobs and services and reducing workers’ rights are a step backwards that will only limit opportunities for women and force them back into positions of dependency. 

There’s still some way to go, but International Women’s Day is a good time to remember what we’re working for – a future where women don’t have to fear violence, where we have equal access to work and are paid fairly for the work that we do, and where there is nothing holding us back from realising our potential.

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