Women, inequalities and the crisis

International Women's Day 2013 (European Parliament)

International Women’s Day 2013 (European Parliament)

The European Parliament has decided to dedicate this year’s International Women’s Day (8 March) to the topic “women’s response to the crisis”. A Eurobarometer survey has been conducted among a sample of over 25,000 Europeans to gain better knowledge of the citizens’ perception of inequalities between men and women, the impact of the crisis on these inequalities and the solutions that seem adequate to them to solve this persistent problem. This article presents the principal results. 

How do Europeans perceive gender inequalities?

European citizens consider that the persisting pay gap between men and women is the most important gender inequality (38% overall answers / 39% women’s answers), followed by violence against women and stronger difficulties for women in reconciling their private and working lives (a problem perceived more acutely by women respondents – 37%, which makes this issue the second most important for women – than their male counterparts – 31%). We also note that women are much more sensible to the unequal sharing of responsibilities and tasks between men and women in families (30%, against only 21% of men). At the other end of the scale, the persistence of sexist stereotypes is viewed as an important gender inequality by only 15% of respondents.

The differences of answers by countries are very interesting as well. Half of French, Austrian and Swedish respondents name the pay gap as major inequality, while it is the case for less than 30% of Irish, Italian, Lithuanians, Greeks and Romanians (23% for the latter). In addition, more than half of the Portuguese (52%), 49% of Spanish and Swedish respondents and 46% of Italians and Romanians name violence against women, while only 20% of Dutch, Germans and Poles do so. Finally, regarding the women’s difficulty to reconcile work and family life, the problem is more acutely perceived in Germany, Austria and Luxembourg, while Romanian, Cypriot, Swedish, British and Irish respondents seem to care relatively less about this issue. This may well reflect different cultures and practices across the EU, both regarding the promotion of gender equality, in general, and the facilitation of labour market access for women, in particular.

The age of the respondents also has an impact: younger women focus more on the difficulties they face in reconciling working and family life, while elder women feel more concerned by the pay gap, an issue that indeed gains importance with the age.

Finally, it is worth noting that Europeans name the same three first major gender inequalities when asked which have worsened most as a consequence of the crisis, the stronger difficulties for women in reconciling their private and working lives becoming even the most cited issue by female respondents.

What perceived impact had the crisis on the labour market?

For European citizens, the major consequences of the crisis on the labour market are the later entrance of young graduates into the job market (46% overall / 49% women), the increase in insecure work (42%) and the fact that some people work in jobs that do not correspond to their level of qualification (a problem felt more acutely by women – 38% – than men – 35%). Curiously, by contrast with the answers presented above, the difficulty of reconciling private and working lives and the gender pay gap are the two least cited areas.

On a national scale, 60% or more of Spanish, Portuguese, Danish and Latvians respondents name the problem of the later entrance of young graduates into the job market, while less than 30% of Maltese, Bulgarians, Austrians and Germans (only 20% for the latter) do so. The increase in insecure work is particularly felt by Dutch, Czech, Italian and French citizens (all over 50%) but much less by respondents from the Baltic countries (less than 20%). Finally, the fact that some people work in jobs that do not correspond to their level of qualification is a main concern in Latvia (52%), Slovakia, the Netherlands (44% each) and Portugal (43%). By contrast, only 16% of Finnish and 25% of Swedish respondents name it. For the other countries, the percentage varies between 30% and 40%.

This latter problem is also mostly felt by young European women (15-24 years old), while the increase in insecure work is mainly an issue for middle-aged women. The later entrance of young graduates in the labour market is an issue particularly felt by the youngest and the eldest women (15-24 and 55+ years old).

Which areas must be given priority in times of crisis?

An overwhelming two-third overall majority name firstly jobs and combating unemployment, especially youth unemployment as a priority. 72% and 60% of men do so. Then comes investing in education and training named by 42% of all respondents (45% of women) and, much further, investing in research and development (R&D) (27% overall, but only 22% of women, 26% of whom are more concerned by the purchasing power and the necessity to combat inflation). Pensions, the regulation of financial markets, investing in the environment and the creation of green jobs, and housing are named by less than 20% of the respondents.

More than three out of four Latvians, Poles and Hungarians are firstly preoccupied by jobs and combating unemployment, especially youth unemployment, while less than 60% of Belgian and Luxembourgish respondents are so. More than half of British, Germans and Spaniards name investing in education and training as one of the four most urgent priorities; by contrast, Greeks and Slovenians (28% each) focus much less on it. As for investing in R&D, Spanish, Italian and Danish respondents are the ones most sensible to this issue, which is least named in Estonia, Malta and Hungary.

For this question, we also see that the results are relatively homogeneous among the different age categories of women.

The perceived differences of recruitment criteria between men and women

This issue is important, since it may contribute to explaining the different treatment of men and women at work.

What comes out of the results is that, according to the European citizens, the three first recruitment criteria applied to women are whether they have children (49% overall, but 54% of women name this criterion, while only 43% of men do so), flexibility in terms of working hours (35% overall) and general physical appearance (33%). By contrast, criterion like language or computer skills, professional experience or the ability to adapt are the least cited criteria. So, there is a strong perception that women are not recruited on the basis of their skills and performances!

By contrast, for men, two of the three above-mentioned criteria are the least cited (the fact that he has children and the general appearance), while the most cited ones are professional experience (40%), the level of qualifications (38%), the ability to be mobile, for example going to work abroad (31% overall, but 35% of women give this answer, while only 27% of men do so) and the flexibility in terms of working hours (31% overall as well).

Let us go back to women and observe some national data. The importance of the criterion of having children is perceived very differently according to the Member State: in eight Member States (CZ, HU, AT, DE, FR, IE, UK, SE), more than 50% of respondents name this criterion, while in Finland, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Romania, it is important for less than 30% of respondents. The criterion of flexibility in terms of working hours sees similar differences. Here, the Dutch (52%), Austrians, Poles, Germans and British are the most sensible, while less than 20% of Baltic countries citizens and of Bulgarians, Romanians and Cypriots consider it is a major recruitment criterion. Finally, the general appearance / look is considered as an important recruitment criterion for women particularly in Greece, Romania, and Bulgaria, while Danish, Estonian, Swedish and Irish respondents are the less sensible to it.

Without surprise, the criterion of having children is mostly cited by women aged 25-39, i.e. those who are directly confronted with the problem, though it is also the first criterion cited by women in the other age spans. The same category is also the one that cites most the flexibility in terms of working hours. As for the general appearance, it is rather equally named by women across all age categories.

To improve things, how could work be promoted?

The question is: how to get more people into work or enable them to stay in work until later in life?

Promoting regular training for people at work is seen as very or fairly effective by 85% of respondents (87% of women), followed by increasing the affordability of child care facilities (80%; women seem to be more sensible to this issue, as 49% think it would be very effective while only 41% of men do so) and increasing the availability of child care facilities (79% overall, with a pattern of answers similar to the one for the affordability of such facilities). Supporting people who want to start their own business is also supported by more than three out of four respondents. By contrast, making it easier for people to work abroad is not really seen as an effective measure to promote work (there is an equal distribution between those who think it would be very or fairly effective and those who do not).

Promoting regular training is especially important for Maltese, Italians, and Austrians, while Hungarians (only 19%) seem not to believe in such a solution. Maltese and Italians are also very much in favour of increasing the affordability and availability of child care facilities, while Hungarians, Scandinavians and Poles are not really convinced by this solution. The affordability is also a particular issue in Ireland. As for supporting people who want to start their own business, this idea is very popular in Italy and Malta, and also slightly less in Spain. Here too, Hungarians seem not to believe it will help to improve things.

As for the answers of women depending on their age, we see that the idea of promoting regular training gains ever more importance with the age (48% of 15-24 years old think it will be very effective; 56% of 55+ do think so). Women aged more than 25 are also more sensible to the issues related to child care facilities. Supporting people who want to start their own business (by measures such as micro-credit) is evenly supported across all age spans. Finally, young women (15-24) are significantly more confident in the idea of making it easier for people to work abroad (25%, against 14-16% for the other age categories).

Finally, which gender inequality should be addressed as a priority by the candidates to the next European elections in June 2014?

Respondents could name only one inequality. Coherently with the results outlined at the beginning of this article, the three most cited issues are the gender pay gap (21% overall; 23% of women), the violence against women (16% all) and the stronger difficulties for women in reconciling their private and working lives (16% overall; 18% of women).

More than a third of Austrians choose the gender pay gap as priority issue, while less than 15% of Greek, Spanish, Maltese and Romanian citizens do so. 23% of Italian and Spanish respondents focus primarily on violence against women, while less than 10% of Estonians, Latvians and Luxembourgish do. Finally, the difficulties in reconciling working and private lives are an issue that German, Luxembourgish and Maltese respondents want to see urgently addressed, while only 8% of Swedes make of it their first priority.

As for the influence of age on the answers, we see that young women (15-24) are the most sensible to violence against women and the least sensible to the pay gap (that probably did not arise yet at their age). We can also observe that women between 25 and 54 are significantly more inclined to prioritise the issue of the stronger difficulties they face in reconciling their private and working lives.


This quantitative study shows interesting results and enables varies analysis, providing data per country, but also per age span, occupation (not discussed in this article) and familial situation (not discussed either). We can observe some differences of perception between men and women on some issues, though these differences do not seem insurmountable in my opinion. By contrast, the differences between national answers are sometimes massive and here lies probably a key for improving a European strategy in favour of gender inequality: account must be taken of different national cultures and traditions: each measure should be better targeted at specific Member States, so as to address precise problems affecting various national labour markets.

Pierre-Antoine KLETHI

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