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Address on “Women’s Economic Independence is a Human Right”

Address on "Women's Economic Independence is a Human Right"
Monday, 10 December

Mr Speaker, excellences, ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues,

I am very pleased to be with you today here in Tallinn.

My special thanks go to the organisers of this event, and especially to my friend and colleague Marianne Mikko, Chairperson of the Estonian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Vice-President of the Assembly and a tireless defender of women's rights.

Today, 10 December, is International Human Rights Day and the end of the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence. There is no better time to remind ourselves that women's rights are human rights and that achieving gender equality should be the objective and the responsibility of us all, men and women alike.

Over its nearly 70 years of existence, the Council of Europe has promoted gender equality with increasing resolve, developing the concept of gender mainstreaming, adopting a Gender Equality Strategy, as well as a number of recommendations and other comprehensive legal and policy instruments aimed at helping its member States to turn gender equality into reality.

I consider it a priority of my mandate as President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and as a national politician, to contribute to promoting an ambitious gender equality agenda.

Gender equality means equal rights, responsibilities, empowerment and participation of women and men in all spheres of public and private life. It also means an equal access to resources between women and men and being equally valued for equal work.

Unfortunately, despite many improvements concerning the status of women in Europe in the last decades, effective equality remains elusive in all spheres of life, including the economy.

An overview of women's economic empowerment in Council of Europe member States shows that:

-        fewer women than men own economic assets and properties;

-        women are disproportionately affected by poverty and discrimination in access to employment;

-        when they are employed, they are overrepresented in sectors which tend to offer lower pay, such as care and education;

-        more frequently than men, they have part-time, temporary or precarious contracts.

Gender differences also exist among autonomous workers and entrepreneurs, with over 50% more self-employed men than women, and the gap widening as the size of the business grows.

Those women who manage to make a successful career, inevitably reach the glass ceiling, the invisible but powerful barrier preventing them from reaching the very top.

I often say that women are like oxygen. The higher you go, the less you find.

In most European countries, women earn on average only 60 to 75% of men's wages. This is a striking injustice, which in turn reinforces the prejudice that women are less legitimate than men in positions of power. Besides, this pay gap has an accumulative effect throughout a working life: eventually it translates into an even more considerable pension gap, which amounts to 40%.

Changing this situation is both necessary and possible. It is a matter of political will.  Both ethical and economic considerations support this vision. Why should someone's work be worth 20 or 30% less than someone else's, for the same work? Why should a country miss the opportunity to increase its wealth because of stereotyped gender roles and outdated cultural barriers? Indeed, research indicates that economic development would increase substantially if women and men could contribute to it on an equal basis.

In the last few years, several Council of Europe member States have introduced innovative policies and legislation to this end. As a pan-European forum for political debate, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is the ideal place for legislators to share these best practices. This year, it has done so in the context of the adoption of Resolution 2235 on Empowering women in the economy.

In Iceland, for instance, innovative measures were introduced by the Equal Pay Gap in 2017. The new regulations require public and private companies with 25 or more employees to have to pay system scrutinized and certified by external auditors as gender equal. The law introduces financial sanctions in the case of non-compliance. In addition, companies are exposed to possible action by trade unions. The aim of this law is to focus on gender equality in the development of careers and the pay system in companies by making the criteria transparent. The aim is also, more generally, to promote a gender equality mindset amongst employers and employees, and to encourage women to apply for all positions, including those traditionally viewed as typically reserved for men.

Not only did the Icelandic government commit to bridging the gender gap by 2022, which is a remarkable goal in itself, but it also introduced a sort of labelling system, similar to quality or environmental certifications, requiring companies to have their remuneration system checked by external auditors. 

Transparency regarding salaries is another tool for combating gender inequalities, particularly the gender pay gap. Requiring companies to publish their salary scales makes it much more difficult for them to get away with unjustified inequalities in remuneration. This principle was introduced in 2017 in the legislation of the United Kingdom and Germany and we should look carefully into the impact it will have in the next few years. Hopefully, the naming and shaming will prove effective: the over 50% gender pay gap in a well-known company such as Easyjet, for instance, made headlines in the press and pushed the company to adopt measures rapidly.

Another major step towards gender equality in the economy was taken several years ago in Norway, when quotas as high as 40 % were introduced for the under-represented sex in management boards of large companies. This measure was initially met with criticism but is now considered unanimously as a success: the increased gender diversity at top management level has also improved the quality of boards, bringing about a new generation that is generally more diverse, educated and skilled. In fact, the Norwegian quota law was considered as a turning point and has inspired legislators in many other countries, such as Belgium, France, Italy and Portugal.

In this respect, I would like to recall that Assembly Resolution 2235 asks Council of Europe member States to introduce quotas for the under-represented sex on company boards of directors, of 30% or more, with financial and non-financial sanctions for non-compliance, such as the dismissal of the entire board in severe cases.

The Assembly has also constantly recalled that gender inequality in the economy is interconnected to gender inequality within the household. Gender stereotypes and traditional role models continue to influence the sharing of household chores and care work between women and men, whereby women continue to perform most of them, often without having made a genuinely free choice.

In order to break this cycle, the public authorities have a key role in the empowerment of women by providing high quality care services, at affordable costs. Finland leads the way in this area, with every child below seven years old being entitled to be registered with a care facility, free of charge.

The system of parental leave is also a very important element, and the incentives that are in place to encourage fathers to take up their share of care responsibilities.

Sweden, for instance, has established a system providing for 13 months of parental leave which can be shared between the parents, with two months reserved for fathers.

We live in a world which is rapidly changing. Promoting women's economic empowerment and independence also means preventing the insurgence of new gender gaps.

Today, fewer women have access to information technology then men. Research has proved that this is not due to women being technophobic, but rather to the barriers they encounter in having access to employment, education and income. Given the opportunity to use technology, women turn out to be as active as men, or even more.

We should turn the challenge into an opportunity by preventing the gender digital gap and ensuring that women and girls can master digital technologies, so that they are better connected and positioned on the labour market.

At the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe we have collected some examples of good practice also in this area: in Norway, for instance, the European Center for Women and Technology gathers together more than 130 organisations as well as academics, civil servants, business people and representatives of NGOs and carried out projects to increase the participation of girls and women in the technology sector. Dozens of similar networks have arisen in recent years in several member States, including in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Romania and the United Kingdom.

While education is key to promoting societal change, unfortunately it also abounds with examples of negative gender stereotypes. They appear in the behaviour and teaching practices of education professionals, in career advice, and in school textbooks which continue to convey traditional cultural norms, failing to fully include women's contribution to science, history and the arts.

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are at the very heart of economic development and they are the sectors that offer the best professional opportunities. All too often, the idea that they are not good at science and technology is conveyed to girls. This has an impact on the choices that young women make.

These stereotypes are real barriers that hinder the development of girls and prevent them from exploiting their full potential. It is crucial that girls become aware that a world of opportunities is open to them, and that they can take on the responsibility to contribute to science and technology on an equal footing with men. This requires an effort in the whole chain of education, from primary to university, and also in the labour market.

Role models can contribute to raising awareness and help women and girls become more confident in their potential: women scientists are a minority, but a substantial one, and their work should be made known. Women engineers, technicians, astronauts are inspiring figures.

In this regard, I would like to mention a particularly interesting good practice from the Netherlands: the Long Term-Interrelated Interventions to Increase Women's Participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: the deployment of role models. This action targets the whole chain of education, from primary school to university, as well as the labour market. It consists of over 200 women who play a key role in these areas and who accept to go and meet students to share their experience, thus being inspirational role models.

Many of you have certainly heard of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which Estonia ratified in February this year. Known as the Istanbul Convention, it is considered the most advanced and comprehensive instrument for the protection of women against gender-based violence, probably one of the most widespread human rights violations in Europe.

This Convention has been defined in many ways: the gold standard, a life-saver. I like to think of it as an eye-opener. For the first time, a binding international treaty has clarified that there is a link between gender discrimination, inequality and gender-based violence. It has said that the root causes of inequality lie in a patriarchal mentality which subordinates women to men, and that this is a historic stage of the development of our societies which can and must evolve towards equality. For the first time, an international treaty has told women that domestic violence cannot be considered as a private matter, which they have to endure as a fact of life.

Ensuring women's economic independence is not only a human right in itself but also a way to give women an exit strategy out of an abusive relationship. Increasing women's agency and financial security is both a preventive and a protective measure because it reduces women's vulnerability to violence and gives them a better chance to stand up against a coercive behaviour.

We should also be vigilant that the workplace itself does not become the theatre where violence against women unfolds. A recent study conducted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the Inter-Parliamentary Union has shown that even parliaments are not free from this scourge: not only women parliamentarians but especially women parliamentary staff are the targets of sexual abuse in alarming proportions.

With the adoption of the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe has set a high standard for the protection of human rights, taking into account the gender perspective. It is now necessary to go from words to action and ensure the effective implementation of the Convention, in all its aspects.

The recent attacks against the Istanbul Convention, based on false arguments and a gross misrepresentation of its provisions and aims, show that Europe is not sheltered from the backlash against women's rights which several authoritative bodies, including the United Nations, have reported worldwide.

The time has come to find a new political momentum in support of gender equality as a fundamental human right and as a guiding principle of our political action.

It is also the time to take a personal stand against gender-based violence, wherever we are. We should say #NotInMyParliament, #NotInMyOffice, #NotInMyFamily and be those who take it upon themselves to reject gender stereotypes and prejudice.

Mr Speaker, excellences, ladies and gentlemen, colleagues,

Today I have tried to give you an insight into how the Council of Europe and its Parliamentary Assembly work to promote the empowerment of women and full gender equality across the board. I also bring you my experience as national parliamentarian, as in Switzerland a new piece of legislation aimed at bridging the pay gap is about to be adopted, after much political debate.

I would like to ask you to join us, join me, in giving strength to a new momentum, to a new wave.

Gender equality is a matter of human rights, a matter of dignity, and unfortunately also a matter of life or death for too many women. Women's economic empowerment is a key element which will make it possible to leave gender INequality to history books. Let's work together for our common and better future. Because gender equality is in the interest of society as a whole.

Thank you.