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Has EU gender equality policy lost its momentum?

Has EU gender equality policy lost its momentum?

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

Yes, reckons Finnish researcher Johanna Kantola. The EU Court of Justice, meanwhile, is having a positive impact through judgements which could also have major consequences in the Nordic region, according to Kirsten Ketscher, Professor of Social Security and Welfare at the University of Copenhagen.

Both were among the speakers at a one day conference at Oslo’s House of Literature on 5 November, called ‘When gender equality becomes a European matter’.

“Is the EU good or bad for gender equality? Sometimes the EU is very good and sometimes very bad. It depends where you come from,” said Johanna Kantola, who still largely believed there was a lack of vision within the EU system and that the economic crisis had had a negative impact on many gender equality projects. 

Kirsten Ketscher, who spoke about the importance of the EU Court of Justice for gender equality, was more optimistic:

“The EU is no more than what 28 countries can do together. The EU Court of Justice represents a power of enormous importance, however,” she said.

The EU Court of Justice interprets EU legislation and makes sure this is adapted in an equal fashion in all EU countries. It also solves legal disputes between EU countries and EU institutions. It must not be confused with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. 

“Nordic courts often tone down and exist in a kind of symbiosis with parliaments and governments. The EU Court of Justice is highly independent and is a very competent court,” said Kirsten Ketscher.

Kirsten Ketscher


One judgement which will have a big impact, she said, is Lex Maïstrellis, which concerns the individual’s right to parental leave during a child’s birth. The judgement was passed on 16 July this year.

Konstantinos Maïstrellis is a Greek judge who applied for parental leave in 2010. It was turned down because his wife was not working at the time. The EU Court of Justice ruled that each individual parent has an individual right to parental leave, and that Greek legislation cannot prevent this. The Greek approach is echoed in Norway, where a man’s right to paid parental leave in certain cases depends on whether the child’s mother is working. 

“The Maïstrellis judgement is like a letter to Norway. The judge, Juliane Kokott, is really wielding the whip!”

The EU Court of Justice is known for basing its judgements on individual rights. As a result it reacts in cases where people are divided into groups for whom different conditions apply.

Unisex insurance

“Another such case is what is known as Test Achats, where a Belgian consumer organisation took an insurance company to court for using average life span calculations to give lower insurance payments to women,” said Kirsten Ketscher.

Since women in most countries live three to four years longer than men, female insurance customers’ pension insurance money is stretched out over a higher number of years, making the annual sum lower because the women might outlive men on average.  

“The judgement is a huge victory for female insurance customers!”

According to Kirsten Ketscher this means so-called unisex insurance policies will become the norm in the EU and the EEA, where Norway and Iceland are also members. Today only six to seven out of the EU’s 28 member states have unisex insurance policies, including Denmark and Sweden. 

Five pillars in EU gender equality politics

Johanna Kantola, a researcher at the University of Helsinki, who has written the book Gender and the European Union (2010), described the five pillars which the EU’s gender equality politics rest on:

  • Anti-discrimination
  • Positive action
  • Gender mainstreaming
  • Action programmes
  • Funding

Kantola 2Johanna Kantola described each pillar and how they had developed. She also used information from researcher Sophie Jacquot from the University of Louvian in Belgium, whose book ‘Transformations in EU Gender Equality’ has followed developments up until present time.

“The book’s subheading is ‘from origins to dismantling’. She shows how all of the five pillars are facing serious challenges.”

The most obvious of these is budget cuts.

“When austerity measures were introduced in Europe, gender equality did not play a major part. But this is about more than the economic crisis, there is more going on,” said Johanna Kantola.

Fewer directives

“The are fewer directives addressing gender equality coming from the Commission now, and there is a debate about ‘cutting red tape’ which also affects gender equality issues.”

In other instances the Commission tries to introduce directives which are then slowed down by member states, or by the EU Parliament which demands more from the directives than what the Commission has proposed. That is the case for the directive on parental leave, which the Commission passed on 8 March 2010. The Commission wanted to extend parental leave in EU countries from a three month minimum to four months. But the Parliament wanted the minimum limit to be five months. 

The issue has been locked for the past seven years, and there is nothing to suggest a solution is anywhere close. 

“It would have been nice to be more positive about the development of EU gender equality politics, but I’m afraid my bleak vision is being shared by most researchers in my field,” said Johanna Kantola. 

When gender equality becomes a European matter

The conference was organised by CORE - Centre for Research on Gender Equality, Institute for Social Research, and ARENA Centre for European Studies, the University of Oslo.


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