With International Women’s Day on March 8, I was planning to write an article related to that topic. Last Thursday evening, at 11.30 p.m., just as I was about to nod off, I checked my inbox one last time and found the announcement of the new EU Gender Equality Strategy prepared by the new European Commissioner for Equality. Needless to say, I was immediately awake, and had to stay up a bit longer to read this key document. To my knowledge, this is the first EU Strategy for Gender Equality, although the topic is in the founding EU treaties. The Strategy sets out the importance of equality in the EU, including in all of its activities. It affirms the commitment to leave no one behind, and to achieve a gender equal Europe for everyone. It intends to deliver on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and in particular, SDG 5, which is: “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”
While the EU Strategy is an initial ‘framework’ document that needs to be filled in over the coming years with more specific details, what is of particular interest to us is that it weighs in on the importance of women’s entrepreneurship, a first to my knowledge that women’s entrepreneurship is in an EU gender equality strategy. Empowering women entrepreneurs also takes into consideration their access to finance and work-life balance.
The Strategy makes its case by highlighting some significant and fundamental facts:
- All-male founding teams receive almost 92% of all capital invested in Europe;
- Globally, only 1 in 10 decision-makers at venture capital and private equity firms are female;
- The Gender Pay Gap in the EU is 15.7%, even though the principle of equal pay for equal work has been enshrined in EU law since 1957;
- The Gender Pension Gap in the EU is 30.1%;
- Only 55% of women born outside the EU are in employment, compared to 69.7% of women born in the EU.
These disappointing statistics (all from the Gender Equality Strategy) should inspire us all to be more actively looking for improvements and solutions.
There are also a few more positive notes:
- The Von der Leyen Commission has historically the largest share of female Commissioners.
- In the 2019 European elections, 39% of elected MEPs were women, an increase of 2% over the 2014 elections.
Importance of women’s economic empowerment
WBII is essentially a network organization to support international women entrepreneurs. But seen from the bigger picture, we also are very much concerned with women’s economic empowerment. The Strategy makes the case that it is widely known that women’s participation in the labour market has powerful impacts on the economy in general, and empowers women to be economically independent and to shape their own lives. The strategy also recognizes the need to have more women involved in developing ideas for innovative and digital technologies, and states that targeted measures promoting the participation of women in innovation will be developed, including a pilot project to promote women-led start-ups and innovative SMEs in 2020.
While the EU Work-Life-Balance directive that was recently announced introduces minimum standards for family leave and flexible working arrangements, this important legislation only applies to employees with a contract relationship with an employer, not to the self-employed. If entrepreneurs are the backbone of our economy, and women entrepreneurs are a huge, untapped resource, of great benefit to our economy and society as suggested in a number of well-known studies, we believe that more programs should be developed to ensure that entrepreneurs benefit from pension plans, long term sick leave, and family, maternity and paternity leave. These are all fundamental programs that employees with contracts benefit from, and if we are to encourage and attract more women to consider entrepreneurship, the programmes should also be available to those of us who have started their own businesses.
Walking the talk
In order to ensure that the new EU Gender Equality Strategy is integrated throughout the EU, a number of programmes and funding and budgetary instruments are also in place. Funding will support programs to ensure improved women’s labor market participation, work-life balance, female entrepreneurship, and education and training. In order to access these funds, Member States need to have a national gender equality strategic framework in place as a pre-condition to making use of the funds. We will watch with interest for new opportunities in the Netherlands for women entrepreneurs. If you have suggestions for areas that you would like to see improved, please let us know.
I personally believe that we have to thank in particular the new EU Commission President Ursula van der Leyen, who is in office since December 1, 2019, as well as the new EU Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli. This is also the first time that the EU has a Commissioner of Equality which I trust indicates that they mean business! Whereas in the past, there was general verbal understanding and support at the EU level for gender equality, this Strategy, produced in approximately 3 months from the time of their appointments, identifies key areas where specific actions need to be taken, provides funding programs (budgets still to be determined) to achieve the goals, and describes how this will occur. Words without actions are no longer acceptable, and EU institutions and Member States have to start walking the talk.
If you would like to read the entire 18-page document, here is the link.
It’s a particularly unique present that this important Gender Equality Strategy was released just prior to International Women’s Day!! I have talked with officials from some other EU countries who have told me that it is thanks to the EU that some of their gender equality programs are still in place, even though there have been major shifts in their national governments. The EU is providing important leadership in this area to ensure that women throughout Europe can realize all of their potential. Let’s all celebrate International Women’s Day, in particular this year with our new Gender Equality Strategy!