Women are underpaid all over Europe

Human Rights Comment
Strasbourg 08/03/2011
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Women are underpaid all over Europe

After years of debate and protests, the pay gap still remains. Every day European women continue to experience one of the most deep-rooted injustices – being paid less than a man for work of equal value. Furthermore, the well-known ‘glass ceiling’ continues to prevent many women from career advancement, which in turn has an impact on salary levels – and pensions later in life.

The salary gap between women and men in most European countries is between 15% and 20% and there are some countries with an even sharper difference. When it is measured over a lifetime rather than on the basis of hourly earnings, the wage gap is still wider – which in fact explains the feminisation of poverty.

Part of the gap is due to flagrant gender discrimination in salary setting: women being paid less than men for the same type of job. This is an obvious human rights violation. The right to equal pay for equal work was recognised as a fundamental right more than 60 years ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The same right is a core standard of the International Labour Organisation, ILO, and a provision in the European Social Charter.

Injustice and discrimination

The general pay gap as reflected in statistics also arises from the fact that job sectors dominated by female employees – such as health care and social work – tend to be less well paid than those occupied primarily by men. Another factor is the ‘glass ceiling’: prejudices which prevent women from gaining promotion to positions for which they are qualified.

In many cases this injustice is hidden by discriminatory evaluation and promotion systems. The fact that women are paid less than men in very similar jobs is often disguised through different job titles or classifications.

One pretext for denying women promotion, or even employment, is the fear on the part of managers that women may become pregnant or have to spend time looking after their children. This in turn underlines the need to work for gender equity on several fronts at the same time.

Though there has been some progress in recent years in some European countries, the sad truth is that child rearing and household work are still not shared on an equal basis between men and women.

This is also reflected in statistics about part-time work in which women are grossly over-represented. This, in turn, has repercussions on career possibilities but also economic consequences, including for pension levels after retirement.

What States can do

Women simply do not have access to the labour market on an equal footing. States must now tackle the problem much more forcefully than they have done so far:

• Public employers must set an impeccable example concerning the principle of equal pay for equal work in public employment.

• Collective agreements in the labour market must fully comply with the principle of equal pay for work of equal value. If this is not achieved on a voluntary basis between the parties, it has to be enforced through legislation.

• One issue requiring urgent attention by authorities as well as employers and trade unions is the wage penalty linked to part time working.

• It is crucial that state authorities collect relevant data on gender inequalities in the labour market, take them into consideration in their role as employers and make the data available to the private sector.

• Central and local governments should promote equal access to education and training and develop a child-care system to make it possible for both women and men to combine paid work and child-care.

• A system should exist to guarantee that women who claim to be discriminated against are offered adequate and effective legal remedies – without fear of losing their employment.

Everybody stands to gain from more equity in the labour market. The continued injustices are not only unfair; they also amount to a tremendous waste of competence.

Thomas Hammarberg

Link: Positions on women’s rights. Position Paper from the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights.