Gender equality and the empowerment of women have long featured on the agendas of both the EU and the Council of Europe. It is an overarching theme cutting across a variety of issues, from access to education and healthcare to equal opportunities in the workplace. However, women in Europe and beyond continue to deal with various forms of discrimination and stereotypes only because they are women. Gender remains a sharp marker of inequality.
In 2021, the International Women’s Day was dedicated to ‘Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world’. In keeping with this theme, the EU Delegation to the Council of Europe and the Amicale Femmes of the Council of Europe welcomed six remarkable women, who hold leadership positions in various fields, to discuss glass ceilings, pay gaps and other obstacles, and ways to overcome them. The conference was open to the public via livestreaming and gathered around 200 participants across over 20 different countries.
In her keynote presentation, Professor Jutta Allmendinger, President of the Berlin Social Science Center, Professor of Educational Sociology and Labour Market Research, gave thorough overview of structural problems related to gender roles in Europe. Focusing on the situation in Germany, she underlined the insufficiency of provisions for small children and the unequal taxes and incentives for parental leave, which deepen the gender pay, care and pension gaps and increase poverty rates amongst women. To effectively combat glass ceilings and inequalities, she argued for stronger legislative and tax reforms, including provisions for maternity and paternity leave, schooling and childcare.
In the first panel discussion, dedicated to policy issues with regard to gender equality, our distinguished speakers stressed that increasing the number of women in leadership positions is a necessity and a condition to achieving gender equality. Despina Chatzivassiliou-Tsovilis, the new Secretary General of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and first woman to hold this position, highlighted the core role of parliaments in political life and thus their responsibility in advancing gender-sensitive legislation. Moreover, international parliamentary assemblies, have a key role in identifying and sharing good practises.
Two high-level diplomats, Permanent Representatives to the Council of Europe, shared their insider’s perspectives on how international cooperation can promote and defend women’s rights around the world. French Ambassador Marie Fontanel illustrated the part diplomacy can play in advancing gender equality by presenting two current initiatives: the Biarritz Partnership for Gender Equality, which assembles a pool of best legislative practises, and the Generation Equality Forum, which will be held in June 2021 in Paris. Finnish Ambassador Nina Nordström explained the objectives Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, better known as the Istanbul Convention. It upholds a zero-tolerance policy against all forms of gender-based and domestic violence and aims to ensure accountability and fight impunity.
Françoise Lauritzen, a former official of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, shared her valuable insights on how the biggest international organisation in the world strives to address gender equality issues across all domains. In particular, she explained the importance of parity among the staff responsible for conducting humanitarian action, to ensure that women refugees get the assistance they need, in full respect of the cultural context. It is all the more important as women refugees are disproportionately victims of violence. Ms Lauritzen also underscored the urgent need to put and end to the practise female genital mutilation, which women and girls’ right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
We then turned our attention to the cultural sector. Francine Raveney, Senior International Consultant on Gender Equality and Communication and Founder of the European Women’s Audiovisual Network, gave us an overview of the representation of women in the audiovisual industry and its evolution for the past ten years. While stressing the need to continue raising awareness, she praised the efforts of streaming platforms to bridge gender gaps.
In the second panel discussions, the speakers shared personal stories about gender inequality and glass ceilings. Ms Chatzivassiliou-Tsovilis recalled a study conducted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the Inter-Parliamentary Union in 2018 where 85% of female members of Parliament who responded to the survey said they had been victims to psychological violence, and one quarter of them had been victims of sexual violence. Addressing issues in the film industry, Ms Raveney, underscored that financial gatekeepers in the film industry and beyond remain prejudiced against content produced by women. Ms Fontanel, Ms Nordström and Ms Lauritzen all shared their personal experiences of sexism and gender bias in their careers in public administration and diplomacy, highlighting the pervasiveness of such problems and the urgency to tackle them.
These stories of inspiring achievements, but also of challenging experiences shed light on the issues still ahead on the path to gender equality. The speakers’ testimonies also underscored the importance of actively promoting women’s empowerment, protecting women’s rights and combatting gender inequalities at the international level, through effective multilateral cooperation. Thus, EU and the Council of Europe work in synergy to promote gender equality across sectors, in Europe and beyond. The EU Gender Equality Strategy for 2020-2025 delivers on the Commission’s commitment to achieving a Union of Equality, and the EU’s new Action Plan on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in External Relations 2020–2025 (GAP III) aims to accelerate progress on empowering women and girls everywhere.