Occupational equality in the European Union and the United States



The issue of occupational gender equality is a recurrent one in the European Union and the United States. Despite considerable advances over the last 40 years further progress continues to meet with strong resistance which very often renders existing, conventional legislation powerless. Yet occupational equality is one of the fundamental components of gender equality.

Consequently the subject has become extremely topical in the EU and the US. In June 2009 during a gender equality conference, the European Commissioner for Social Affairs, Vladimir Spidla said that equal pay had been enshrined in European treaties since 1952. He called on member states to cooperate with the Commission and to take measures to ensure equal pay. In France, a report drafted by Ms Brigitte Grésy, member of the Social Affairs General Inspection Office and sent to the French Ministry of Social Affairs on July 8th 2009, examined the question of occupational equality and put forward various proposals to institute it. The main measure was a mandatory 40% quota of women sitting on the boards of directors of large companies! Meanwhile on January 30th 2009 the first bill that Barack Obama signed into law after being elected, known as the Lilly Ledbetter Act concerned equal pay.

A close look at the realities of occupational equality in the EU and the US is therefore particularly revealing because in many ways the situation for American and European women in similar despite the very different social models which have led to equally different paths followed in attempts to overcome gender inequality. Generally speaking in Europe the social democratic model has dominated. It has tended to stress public services in its attempt to encourage women to enter the labour market. Nevertheless, the ten former communist countries of Eastern Europe which joined the EU in May 2004 arrived with an entirely different culture of equality. But this culture turned out to be merely cosmetic and collapsed with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today these countries have had to transpose into their national legislation the Community “acquis” (acquired rights) thus bringing them into line with Western Europe. In the US it has been the employment civil rights movement and anti-discrimination acts as well as private, paid childcare facilities which have allowed American women to seek jobs.

One might have imagined that this massive influx of women onto the labour market from the 1960s and 1970s onwards would have led to European and American society bucking the entrenched trends which had led to inequality. And yet, nothing, or very little happened. As the French labour sociologist Margaret Maruani points out in “Les Nouvelles Frontières de l’Inégalité”, “there are few areas in which social upheavals of such a scale have taken place against a backdrop of such deep-rooted inequality”. This situation is all the more surprising given the fact that in Europe and the United States it is generally agreed that women in the workplace have to a great extent been the powerhouse of economic growth over the last few years and that their continued presence on the labour market is essential in weathering the global economic crisis and the looming recession.

Yet to various degrees in different member states of the EU and in some states of the US, women continue to be victims of the same type of occupational discrimination and still find themselves up against a glass ceiling between them and genuine occupational equality.

Despite numerous European anti-discrimination directives and federal laws in the US, implementation has not succeeded anywhere in the EU or the US, be it in terms of equal pay, access to specific jobs types, promotion and career prospects, employment contracts or top management posts which remain just as elusive as in the past because of the glass ceiling which few women ever succeed in smashing. Furthermore women represent the majority of the unemployed.

A study for FEPS and FJJ by Ghislaine TOUTAIN, Director of External Relations of the Fondation Jean-Jaurès (France)