Seven Chances to Meet Europe's Employment Targets


Oct 30, 2014

London commuters

Photo by Johnny Greig/iStock

This commentary originally appeared on European Voice online on October 29, 2014.

The EU will fail to meet the Europe 2020 Strategy target of having 75% of people between the ages of 20 and 64 in work unless enough women are encouraged to enter, or remain in, the workforce. The new EU Commissioners Věra Jourová and Marianne Thyssen, responsible for gender equality and employment, are challenged with reducing the employment gap between men and women. Here are seven factors they must address:

1. The problem of childcare has not yet been answered

Only eight Member States have met the Barcelona targets for childcare provision up to school age, and progress in other Member States is slowing down. Across the EU-27, most mothers who do not work, or only work part-time, do so because childcare is too expensive or unavailable. Attitudes towards formal childcare for children under the age of three vary widely across Member States, and negative perceptions of childcare prevent the adoption of policies to increase provision in some countries.

2. Flexible working is not flexible enough

Mothers and women with dependent older relatives need the possibility of flexible or part-time working when their family duties are high. But even where flexible working is enshrined in law, it is not always accessible, and there is a mismatch between those who most need flexible working hours, and those most likely to work flexibly. Where flexible working is available, women with fixed-term rather than permanent contracts, lower-educated workers and those with non-management roles are less likely to be offered a flexible working schedule than their male, permanent, better-educated or management colleagues.

3. The economic viability of work is not just about childcare

In Germany, the tax rate increases with household income, which disincentivises dual earner households. It is typically the woman who does not go out to work because of this tax penalty, sustaining the traditional male breadwinner model. In the Netherlands, almost all working mothers work part-time, and 25% of these earn less than the minimum income for financial independence. If work is neither viable nor rewarding, why bother?

4. Mothers are not the only cohort of women with employment issues

Motherhood and a career are a challenging combination: mothers work fewer hours, earn less and cost the State more. But getting more women into the workforce is not just about focusing on the specific needs of mothers. While family-friendly policies are indeed important, they are not the whole picture. Girls, single women, women in a marriage or partnership with no children, women with dependent older relatives — these groups all have their own challenges in finding employment and pursuing a career.

5. Improving education for girls and young women is only part of a solution

Although women across Europe have higher levels of education than men, they do not benefit equally from the labour market. Policymakers must look at the classroom to examine why girls disproportionately select 'feminised' fields of study, which in turn makes it harder and takes longer for them to get their first job.

6. Equality has yet to reach the home

A modest increase in the relative economic power of women across households in the majority of Member States is not reflected in a compensatory shift in relative share of household duties; traditional gender roles still hold sway. Even where the female partner in a couple earns more than the male partner, she still contributes a far larger proportion of her time to household tasks. As long as men's contribution to domestic work remains at around half that of their female partners, women will have fewer opportunities to seek more or longer hours of employment outside the home, and the norm of men as breadwinners and women as secondary wage earners will persist.

7. Gradients across and within social groups are being ignored

Despite the overarching points outlined above, attempting to impose a 'one-size-fits-all' answer on a particular social group, such as young women aged 16-20, or single mothers, or older women, is a mistake. Any attempts at tackling the employment challenges for women must understand the variations within different social groups. For instance, parents from low-income families are less likely to use formal childcare than those in high-income households, but children from low-income families tend to benefit most from formal childcare, and having both parents in employment protects the children from the risk of poverty, so childcare policies should reflect this.

Melinda Mills is Nuffield Professor of Sociology, University of Oxford. Stijn Hoorens is Associate Director of RAND Europe.