Yesterday I was invited to speak at a conference hosted by the European Parliament to mark International Women’s Day. The panel included Conservative MEP, Marina Yannakoudakis, the CEO and founder of Mumsnet, Justine Roberts, the academic, Roberta Guerrina and Jacqueline Minor who is the new head of the Commission Representation in the UK.
We discussed what role the EU has played in shaping gender equality in the last 40 years.
Leading up to the event Mumsnet ran a thread on its website to ask its members what it thought about the effects the EU had had on women and gender equality. I read the thread in preparation of the event and was struck by the feeling from those who really believed that little had been done by the EU.
Indeed Justine Roberts confirmed this sentiment during the panel debate when she said people don’t necessarily know that many gender rights are a result of EU directives. And I think that’s a fair point. We have done a huge amount of work in the area of equal pay for work, improved the area of maternity rights and worked to achieve better paternity provision so that parents can have more of a choice in how they bring up their children among many other things.
Jacqueline Minor made the point that while we have come a long way, there is still a lot of work to do citing the 20% pay gap in the UK which still exists. In the Commission there is a better gender balance in the middle echelons but the top three per cent still has a disproportionately high number of men she explained.
Meanwhile Dr Roberta Guerrina, who is the head of the politics school at the University of Surrey specialising in gender and EU politics, suggested that women in Italy are effectively on strike from having babies as a result of gender inequality at work, and the tough economic climate. The reality is, she argued, that in some southern European countries parity is so low that women are not having children hence Italy has a seriously low birth rate, one of the worst in Western Europe. In contrast Scandinavian countries have some of the highest rates, and unsurprisingly the latter countries have significantly higher levels of gender equality.
The event was a fitting way to mark International Women’s Day, and while we have much to celebrate, we must tell people what the European Union has done for women. That’s why events such as yesterday’s panel debate are important to participate in. The provide a platform, but we must also seek to encourage the media not just to write about the European Union in a negative way but to write of the success stories too.
Finally, I was disappointed to hear of a survey published by BBC Sport which found how undervalued international sportswomen feel. Not just in terms of their financial remuneration but in terms of the support they receive to help them reach full potential in comparison to the male counterparts. So much more must be done in this area.
But today, let’s celebrate International Women’s Day and the leaps we have made so far.