Event report: Women at work. Under-used source of growth?

The topic of gender equality surfaces in the public debate every year around the International Women’s Day. The European Policy Center (EPC) contributed to this trend by organising a policy dialogue entitled “Women at work. Under-used source of growth?” which the Central Library was pleased to attend.

The board of speakers consisted of:

  • Rima Turk (Economist at International Monetary Fund, IMF)
  • Manuela Geleng (Acting Director for Social Affairs at European Commission)
  • Cinzia Sechi (Policy Advisor at European Trade Union Confederation)
  • Annika Hedberg, Senior Policy Analyst at EPC moderated the discussion.


The discussion took as a starting point the results of a study conducted by the IMF “Unlocking female employment potential in Europe: drivers and benefits“, presented by Rima Turk. According to the study, a larger supply of women to senior positions is linked to better financial performance of companies in all relevant areas, including net income, profit before tax or EBIT (earnings before interest and tax). This finding is important as potential output growth is inevitably going to fall in the years ahead due to the declining birth rate and the ageing of Europe’s population. Therefore, it is crucial to find ways of boosting the economy and ensuring that talented people, regardless of their sex, enter the job market. However, there are several factors that hamper this process. The gender gap is sizeable not only in terms of women’s participation, but also based on the amount of hours spent at work. Women tend to work part-time, and that has a proven negative correlation with reaching the higher ranks of management. As a result there is a low female share in senior positions – less than 25%.

The study aimed to understand women’s attitudes to work in order to find out what kind of policies would contribute to raising female employment. It appeared that the tax system is penalising women when they become the second earner in a household. By adding the second income a family may fall into a higher income tax category, which is a considerable disincentive. Maternity leave policies also matter. By drawing a comparison between different EU countries, the study revealed that a 17-week long leave period is a tipping point. If the period exceeds this duration it may discourage women from re-entering the job market.

Despite the aforementioned difficulties, the report stresses the need to encourage women to work, preferably full-time. Sectors that need creativity, such as high-tech and knowledge-intensive sectors, would greatly benefit from more women joining the labour force.

Manuela Geleng from the European Commission (EC) presented an update on current policy developments in the field of gender equality. She said that women tend to work in sectors that pay less. Moreover, when they become parents they tend to reduce their working time, while men do the contrary. This results in a gender gap which will take a long time to close. Despite the difficulties, social rights are high on the Commission’s agenda. On 8 March the EC launched a public consultation and presented a first outline of what is intended to become the European Pillar of Social Rights. The consultation is open until December and centres on a review of the EU regulatory and policy landscape and the further development of the work-life balance strategy. The social rights policy areas include: equal opportunities and access to the labour market; access to childcare and healthcare; fair working conditions; and promoting individuals ‘ full participation in employment. Geleng further underlined the importance of tackling the problems that parents and carers face as well as promoting funding to improve women’s participation in the labour market. Even though the European Pillar is primarily focused on the Eurozone Member States, all EU countries are free to join. The EC supports developments in non-euro countries through the European Semester exercise You can read more about the EC’s work on gender equality here.

According to Cinzia Sechi, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) is at times better at regulating the job market than policymakers, as it is a unique body focused on defending workers’ interests and speaking on their behalf. The ETUC has been a recognised social partner vis-à-vis the EU institutions since the Lisbon Treaty, which means it is invited to participate in consultation processes. The Confederation has the right to intervene and negotiate with the European-level employers directly, as it did, for example, on the issue of parental leave. Gender equality is one of the ETUC’s main priorities. In the jargon, the sectors in which most women find employment are known as the ‘5C’: cleric, cashier, caterer, cleaner and carer (which includes the child- and healthcare sectors). These sectors allow lower incomes, compounding the existing pay gap and accessibility imbalance between the sexes. These concerns need to be addressed by modernising legislation.

There is still a lot to be done in order to close the gap and achieve gender equality, but on the positive side, there is a lot of potential ready to be unlocked.

For further reading, go to the catalogue of the Library resources here.

  • The Central Library located in the Justus Lipsius building, at JL 02 GH, Rue de la Loi 175, 1048 Brussels (Froissart entrance) – Opening hours Monday to Friday 11.00 – 15.00. It is open to all staff of the Council of the European Union and the European Council, trainees, Permanent Representations of Member States, staff of other EU Institutions and bodies, as well as to researchers and students (upon appointment by e-mail at library@consilium.europa.eu). Access to some Library holdings might be restricted to on-site consultation.

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