Members' Research Service By / March 4, 2015

The road to gender equality: achievements and challenges

Written by Rosamund Shreeves, With its roots in early 20th century women’s activism and subsequent take-up by the United Nations,…

© Zerbor / Fotolia

Written by Rosamund Shreeves,

The road to gender equality: achievements and challenges
© Zerbor / Fotolia

With its roots in early 20th century women’s activism and subsequent take-up by the United Nations, International Women’s Day is a moment for putting the spotlight on women’s achievements and taking stock of progress towards gender equality.

From this perspective, 2015 is a pivotal year. At a global level, it marks the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the deadline for the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which set ambitious targets for advancing women’s rights.

As well as reviewing these initiatives, the EU is currently assessing its own ongoing efforts to promote gender equality, one of its founding values, looking towards a new Strategy for equality between women and men beyond 2015.

How far have we come?

The gender equality index published by the European Institute for Gender Equality is the first comprehensive statistical tool for assessing gender gaps across Europe. Using composite indicators to monitor six core areas: work, money, knowledge, time, power and health and the two satellite areas of intersecting inequalities and violence, it suggests that the EU as a whole is ‘halfway towards gender-equality‘, but with significant variations across these core areas and between countries.

International Women’s Day 2015 – a focus on knowledge

The European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM) is focusing its International Women’s Day events this year on empowering women and girls through education, with a public hearing and a range of publications. The vision of 18th century women’s rights campaigner, Mary Wollstonecraft, of a future where women would be able to pursue almost any career, has still not been fully realised, although access and opportunities for girls have expanded. As the European Parliament noted in 2013 on awarding the Sakharov prize to campaigner Malala Yousafzai, some 250 million young girls around the world are not free to go to school. Advancing gender parity and equality in education was one of the objectives of the 3rd Millennium Development Goal, which set a concrete target of eliminating gender disparity in primary and secondary education by 2005 and in all levels of education no later than 2015. Whilst the UN reports progress at primary school level, the gap between boys and girls remains wide, especially at the tertiary level. Our infographic illustrates that within Europe the issue is now not so much about giving girls access to education as ensuring that they achieve their potential and understanding and addressing the factors that still prevent them from doing so. Read more analyses in our key source on education and training. 


In the 19th century, women’s movements made the political arena a key focus. Today, despite the great strides that have been made, power remains one of the areas where the gender gap is widest, with women still under-represented in political and economic decision-making, particularly at the highest levels. What is the current state of play in Europe, following last year’s European elections and what could be done to improve the situation? Our infographic on women in parliaments provides information on the proportion of women in national parliaments and the European Parliament and the EU Member States which had gender quotas for the EP elections. Those in favour of such quotas believe them to be an effective tool for ‘fast tracking’ gender balance in political institutions, essential for democratic development, while opponents often see quotas as a violation of the principle of merit and an intrusion on party freedom. Our key source Female Political Representation – the use of Electoral Gender Quotas presents further facts and figures and recent analysis on this subject. In the economic domain, too, the issue of gender quotas is currently centre stage. A proposal for binding European legislation on gender balance on company boards, which was strongly endorsed by the European Parliament, is under discussion but currently stalled in the Council.

Work, time and money

In the 20th century, the calls of the ‘second wave‘ women’s movement for legislative guarantees of equal pay for equal work, equal job opportunities, and expanded child-care services have all been taken up by the European Union. However here too, progress in eliminating gender inequalities remains slow. Women still participate less, are overrepresented in lower paid sectors and bear a disproportionate burden of unpaid care and domestic work. Lack of childcare and other work-life balance options continue to constrain their employment. The impact of this gendered constellation of work, time and money is evidenced in the persistent gender and pensions gaps, whilst the effects of the current economic crisis and policy responses to it are another area of concern. Both these issues are explored in a recent in-depth study, whilst further information can be found in our keysource on women’s labour market participation in Europe and infographic on maternity and paternity leave across the EU.

Health, intersecting inequalities and violence

Women’s ability to exercise their freedoms and choices, go to school, participate in decisions and earn equal pay for equal work intersects with other factors such as migrant or lone parent status. At a very fundamental level, it also depends on basic guarantees of dignity, safety and health, including sexual and reproductive health and rights. In the 21st century, violence may still be the area where the gender gap between women and men is widest. The scale of the problem was highlighted in the first EU-wide survey of gender based violence published last year. Our keysource and briefing on FGM and overall analysis on gender violence explore specific issues and what the EU is doing to address them. 

A vision for the 21st century

Looking back at what has been achieved and the challenges that remain, what vision do we wish to pursue now, into the 21st century? The EP’s FEMM Committee is contributing to the development of the EU’s new gender equality strategy through an in-depth study and own-initiative report. And you? What achievements do you most value and what changes would you most like to see? If you are aged between 18 and 28, why not send a contribution to Picture It! the UN Women and European Commission’s joint 2015 gender equality campaign?

Further information on women’s day

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: