All Together to celebrate the International Women’s Day: Our interview with Commissioner Thyssen on the situation of women in politics and in the labour market

Since 1991, you have worked in the European institutions – for 22 years as a member of the European Parliament and since 2014 as the European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility. How would you say the situation of women in politics at EU level has evolved since you started?

Much has changed since I first started. In general, women’s participation in public life has evolved a lot and for the better – from early struggles for women’s right to vote, to important political commitments to ensure women’s full engagement in all areas of public life. In my opinion, the emancipation of women is one of the most important post World War II achievements. The Commission also sets an example when it comes to making sure women are equally represented in politics. President Juncker set a target of having at least 40% of women in high-level management positions within the Commission. Today we are almost there: we’re at 36%, from just 11% in November 2014.

Even though the EU has come a long way to ensure equality between women and men, we are not quite there yet. In national and regions parliaments, the number of women holding positions has been gradually increasing to 28% in 2015. The under-representation of women is most pronounced in the top leadership of these assemblies. Twice as many men as women act as speakers of national parliaments. Nearly four times more men than women lead regional assemblies. Of course it is not all about quotas: a look behind the numbers shows that gender imbalance is also reflected in the division of ministers’ portfolios. Women dominate ministries with sociocultural functions, reinforcing traditional stereotypes about women’s roles and expertise. Men tend to be designated to higher-status and more traditionally ‘masculine’ areas such as foreign affairs, finance and defence. This is the next challenge to tackle.

As European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Labour Mobility, you have been working on the new work-life balance initiative for parents and carers. Why is this initiative an efficient tool to tackle women’s underrepresentation in the labour market?

Gender inequalities in the labour market are striking for mothers or women with caring responsibilities. Women still take up the majority of caring responsibilities. As a consequence, when they have children, or when they have to take care of an elderly or disabled relative, they often reduce their working hours, take long leave, or withdraw from the labour market altogether. On average, the employment rate of women with young children is 9% lower than that of women with no children. In some countries, for instance in Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic, this difference is even over 30%.

Women dropping out of the labour market means that businesses lose access to talented and skilled staff – and this at times of growing skills shortages. Estimates put the economic loss due to the gender employment gap at €370 billion per year. This is 2.8% of the EU GDP!

Our work-life balance initiative is one of the concrete proposals of the European Pillar of Social Rights. It sets out new and higher minimum standards for parental, paternity and carer’s leave in the Member States. Time and again, research shows that women will only have equal access to the workplace when men have equal access to the home. In fact, many men would like to spend more time with their families, but fathers are more likely to use leave when it is adequately paid and reserved for them. We also promote affordable and quality formal care services for children and other dependents. This way, we are offering real choices to both parents. By making it more attractive for parents to share more equally caring responsibilities, we want to increase women’s labour market participation. In conclusion, it’s a triple win. It is good for working parents and carers who will enjoy a better balance between their private and professional lives, it’s good for businesses which will profit from attracting and keeping talent, and good for Member States that lose out money due to the gender employment gap today.

On the occasion of the Equal Pay Day on October 31st, 2017, it was pointed out in a statement that “women work for two months for free in comparison to their male colleagues”. What are the initiatives undertaken by the European Union to deal with this phenomenon?

In the EU today, a woman needs to work on average 6 hours longer than a man, for the same salary. Women also have fewer paid hours and still tend to work in lesser-paid sectors. Due to caring responsibilities, they are also far more likely to work part-time, which is associated with lower hourly wages, weakened career opportunities and weakened social protection, such as unemployment benefits or pensions. For instance, the gender pension gap is even higher than the pay gap and amounts to 36.6%!

The European Commission wants to lead the way to fight this injustice through a dedicated Action Plan. It takes a holistic approach and addresses all the different root causes of the gender pay gap: sectoral segregation, vertical segregation, prevailing stereotypes, a lack of work-life balance, and proper enforcement of the equal pay principle.

The initiative on Work-Life Balance, which I mentioned before, aims to increase female labour market participation and promote a more equal sharing of caring responsibilities which are all connected to the above mentioned factors. We will also follow up on the gender pay gap in the context of the European Semester and engage in dialogue with Member States on measures needed to eradicate it. The Action Plan is also accompanied by an Evaluation Report of the Commission’s Recommendation on Pay Transparency. Pay transparency is a key lever in bringing gender pay differentials within companies to light. Despite the adoption of the Pay Transparency Recommendation, in a third of EU Member States, measures aimed at increasing pay transparency are entirely absent. That’s why the Commission proposed 8 actions of priority, such as improving the application of the equal pay principle, combating segregation in occupations and sectors, breaking the ceiling and tackling the care penalty. Last but not least, it is important to tackle gender stereotypes: funding was allocated for projects in member states to organise campaigns, target specific groups such as education and training communities and organise discussions and exchange of good practices.

On leadership, some still believe that women are less qualified and capable than their male counterparts. Do you think that policies are sufficient to tackle with these rhetoric resulting from deep-rooted cultural and historical practices?

We are well aware that policy alone will not solve everything, but it is our main tool. Taking legislative action, for instance our “Women on Boards Directive” which aims for 40% women in the boards of large publicly listed companies, can at first feel ‘forced’. But it can help to change the cultural mind set over time. We know that countries that took legislative action in the field of gender equality make indeed more progress in this field.

This year’s theme of International Women’s Day is #PressforProgress. To make progress happen, we need everyone to be involved and take bold action. This is why we are also working directly with stakeholders to improve women’s representation in corporate leadership. In the last three years, we allocated around €5 million to projects improving gender balance in corporate management. We are supporting, for instance, the European Women on Boards project which established a European network of talented board-ready women, launched a knowledge centre and a mentoring scheme.

Female entrepreneurs represent only a third of the self-employed in the EU. How does the European Commission foster women’s entrepreneurial spirit and encourage more women to start their own companies?

Women make up half of the EU’s population and should be starting half of the businesses. In reality, this is only a third. Women face a unique set of obstacles in terms of access to finance, training and to a business network. Migrant women face additional barriers when they don’t know the country’s legal system or don’t speak the language. Incidentally though, when it comes to women’s entrepreneurial spirit, new European female entrepreneurs are leading the way. The number of female entrepreneurs who were born outside the EU increased by more than 40% between 2007 and 2016. Today, more than one out of every 20 female entrepreneurs is a new European.

If we do not invest in potential female entrepreneurs, we lose a large pool of entrepreneurial talent. Unlocking this potential is not only the right but also the smart thing to do. The Commission takes action to increase knowledge on women’s entrepreneurship. We also encourage Member States to make use of the European Social Fund to help female entrepreneurs in creating their own business. Many Member States are actively making use of this opportunity. In addition, the EU Programme for Employment and Social Innovation increases access to microfinance and financially supports social entrepreneurship.

What would be your message to young women willing to enter politics?

It is amazing how much young talent is out there so it is not easy to advise. I would say in the beginning it is very important to persevere. When starting as a young politician, you will not immediately receive a great position. It takes time before you get your foot on the ladder. But if you are truly committed, you will get rewarded in the end. Before you are given the nod, be willing to take risks, learn from your failures and learn from your successes. Last but not least, make sure you always stay close to the people, to your community, as they will be your best mentors.