Barriers to Gender Parity in Europe and What We Can Do About Them

If there are 15 men at the table who would you replace? “Nobody,” says the overwhelming majority of the European countries. Let’s not fool ourselves; there is an improvement, there is an intention, but a reality check reveals concerns.“I am disappointed to be here – I am disappointed that my daughter is still asking about gender inequality,” said Millstam Selina at the Women’s Economic Empowerment Forum just a few months back, in Brussels.V. Reading CommissionerMillstam comes from Sweden; one of the best-equipped countries in Europe, where, according to the report by the European Institute for Gender Equality, the equality index of women and men is achieving an overall score of 74.2%. Not too bad, is it? Except that Sweden is not the norm. Sweden is the exception; along with Finland, Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands. But just a short fly away, within the very same Europe, you have Hungary, Greece, Cyprus, and Romania; the latter one with a poor 33.7%. Thus, to grasp the gender parity approach in Europe, we need to understand that the European Union today is not a United States of Europe, but a Union made up of 28 sovereign member states with very diverse gender equality policies and equality indexes.These differences however, are rather odd considering that according to the Foundation Treaty of the European Union -  signed by each and every member state -  equality between women and men is a fundamental right and a common value since 1957.And yet, in 2015, only 27% of senior ministers in national governments across the EU were women, a number already disturbing on its own. But it gets even lower in business leadership, where in the largest EU-based publicly listed companies, only 21.2% of board members are women, or in the total number of self-employed EU citizens, where in 2012, only 31% were women. Unfortunately, the list doesn’t end here:  the number of women at an executive director level in companies listed on stock exchanges stands at 20.2%, and “only 3% of Europe’s top companies have female CEOs,” adds Cheryl D. Miller, Founder & Executive Director of the Brussels-based Digital Leadership Institute. The numbers are not better across the various fields; women are underrepresented everywhere from politics, to business, and media, as well as from sport to STEM.The barriers are known and many; ranging from sexism at the workplace, the challenge of prioritizing children over career, being the key unpaid volunteers, caretakers, or simply the lack of self-confidence. “Today, 75% of women in qualified professions or top management jobs have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime”. (FRA, 2015)As Michéle Mees, coach, and author of Balanced Leader asks: “If we all see this, why nothing is changing?”  She argues that we need to stop fixing women and answer the question: “Are we only coaching women to survive in a masculine place?” Clearly, this is not the solution we should pursue. But what is it then and where do things go wrong? Because, with 60% of EU university graduates being women, there is clearly no scarcity in the job market.Today, the ultimate answer is the quota system. But quotas are like double-edged swords, and similarly to feminism, you either stand up for them or stand against them. Imposing obligatory quotas might not be the magic solution, but until someone has anything better to offer, they remain a vital and only solution with tangible results.The European Commission – that against all intentions, struggles with serious gender inequalities itself (out of 28 Commissioners only 9 are women) – proposed a quantitative objective in 2012. The former EU Commissioner for Justice and Fundamental Rights Viviane Reding called all companies listed on stock exchanges to bring the number of women at executive director levels to 40% by 2020.Six countries (Norway, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain) have adopted the quota law with positive results, and most recently, Germany joined the “role model” countries. The UK is somewhere in-between using a target, instead of a quota, known as 30% Club. In Finland however, they do not like quotas, and instead they opt for a self-regulatory system, known as the “Comply or Explain.” The other countries, the majority, are still lagging behind in accepting that there is a need for change. And that need is urgent.Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 7.56.47 PMIf we take a step back and check what makes the news – that with seven Heads of States (Croatia, Denmark, Kosovo, Switzerland, Lithuania, Malta, the United Kingdom) and five Heads of Governments (Germany, Poland, Denmark, Latvia, Norway) Europe is still a continent with the highest number of female leaders, we could lay back and relax.But not according to Joanna Maycock, EWL Secretary-General, who earlier this year said: “EU is seen as dragging its feet on fulfilling its promise on gender equality.” And she is certainly not alone. “Today, the most optimistic estimate for reaching gender parity is in 80 years from now,” says Miller.Today, Europe is struggling, and governments can make a change, but nothing will change until companies and individuals start doing something. Or let’s go even further: nothing will change if the mentality of both men and women doesn’t change; if women gather in pink ghettos to survive; if motherhood is a penalty and fatherhood is a bonus; if the gender pay gap remains 16% on average, or if 51% of women comprehensively reject gender quotas.No question, ignorance can be a true bliss. But not when it comes to gender parity. [bctt tweet=“Knowing where we stand is not only our obligation but also the first step to curing the system.”] Yes, during the last 40 years our situation has improved, but the stagnation is already tangible. This why we, women, need to know the hard-core facts, even if statistical numbers are sometimes tedious. At age 26, I served as a diplomat in the financial sector; a heavily male-dominated world. I was not only a woman but a young woman. The most important lesson I learned during this time is that I needed to be the cleverest, the most prepared, the most equipped person in the room, and if I achieved to be all this, then I managed to grow to be equal. I learned that gender party came from respect. And respect comes from standing up for ourselves. Our tasks, therefore, is to empower each other in any way we can. If it only means that we empowered someone to dare to change a job, open her long-yearned enterprise, or just showed her a way to trust in herself, then we have already done something for gender parity.And what if you belong to the lucky few? The women who broke through the glass ceiling? Then, as Damla Birol CEO of Carlsberg Turkey urges you: “send that elevator back down” to and lift another person up with you.