Ask EP By / June 8, 2022

Gender equality

Citizens often turn to the European Parliament to ask what the European Union (EU) is doing to promote gender equality.

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Citizens often turn to the European Parliament to ask what the European Union (EU) is doing to promote gender equality.

Policies central to promoting gender equality, such as employment and social policy are mainly the responsibility of the EU countries. Nevertheless, the European Union is determined to protect gender equality, which is a fundamental right under EU law. The EU therefore strives to foster gender equality in all its actions. Examples include promoting gender equality and equal pay at the workplace, combating discrimination and gender-based violence, and challenging stereotypes.

Gender equality strategy

In March 2020, the European Commission published its 2020-2025 gender equality strategy, which builds upon the previous 2016-2019 strategy. The key goals include:

  • ending gender-based violence;
  • ensuring gender equality in the workforce, including equal pay and equal pensions;
  • challenging gender stereotypes;
  • promoting equality in household chores, including childcare;
  • achieving gender balance in decision making and politics.

Equal pay

Equal pay for equal work is a key principle enshrined in the EU treaties. The current legislation on equal pay was originally adopted in 2006. It prohibits both direct and indirect gender discrimination at all stages of employment.

Despite the fact that wage discrimination is illegal, it can be hard to detect when such discrimination occurs. This makes it difficult for victims to bring a legal claim. To tackle this issue through the gender equality strategy, the Commission put forward a legislative proposal on pay transparency in March 2021. This new law would include a number of measures aimed at improving pay transparency, such as:

  • Job seekers would enjoy the right to information about the pay range for jobs they are applying for, including information about the pay for men and women in similar positions. Employers would be forbidden from asking applicants their previous salary level.
  • Employers with at least 250 employees would be required to report on their gender pay gap, and conduct an assessment if the gap is greater than 5 %.
  • Victims of pay discrimination would be better compensated, as it should become easier to bring a successful claim, since the new rules place the burden of proof to show there is no pay discrimination on the employer.
  • Workers’ representatives would be more involved, including in leading collective claims for pay discrimination.

Parliament welcomed this strategy in a December 2021 resolution, but called for clearer targets and indicators to close the pay gap. In its position on the legislative proposal adopted in March 2022, Parliament supports stricter measures than those proposed by the Commission. See this press release for details.

Similarly, ministers of EU countries have also called for additional measures to close the pay gap and to prevent discrimination, most recently in June 2019.

Women on Boards

Today, only 30.6% of board members in the EU’s largest publicly listed companies are women, with significant differences among member states (from 45.3% in France to 8.5% in Cyprus).

On 7 June 2022, the European Parliament and EU countries agreed on a bill to increase the presence of women on corporate boards. The provisional agreement aims to ensure gender parity on boards of publicly listed companies in the EU. Parliament succeeded in including an assessment on the scope of the directive at a later stage on whether non-listed companies should be included in the scope of directive. The European Commission first presented its proposal in 2012 and the European Parliament adopted its negotiation position back in 2013. The file was blocked in the Council for almost a decade, until Employment and Social Affairs ministers agreed on a position in March 2022. Parliament and Council will now have to formally approve the agreement and EU countries would then need to implement the directive two years after it has been adopted.

Parental leave

Women are more likely to take a career break during pregnancy and after childbirth. Recognising this exacerbates the gender gap, the EU has set minimum safety standards for pregnant workers. Additionally, the EU also guarantees a minimum of 14 weeks of maternal leave, and 4 months of parental leave for either parent. An employee cannot be fired, or punished in any way, for taking this leave.

Gender-based violence

The proposed 2020-2025 gender equality strategy also aims at combating gender-based violence. First, the EU is pushing for ratification of the Istanbul Convention on violence against women in all EU countries, most of which have already done so.

In a September 2021 resolution, the European Parliament called on the EU to build upon the Istanbul Convention, and to implement even broader legislation. It proposed prevention measures, such as improving education about sexuality and non-violence at an early age, and addressing underlying causes of violence, such as harmful stereotypes. Parliament also called for better support services, improved protection for victims, and minimum standards for law enforcement.

Parliament reiterated some of these demands in the context of online gender-based violence in a December 2021 resolution. Parliament also highlighted that the Covid‑19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns led to an increase in domestic abuse, and called on the Commission to conduct a thorough analysis of this problem.

EU institutions and bodies

The EU is also committed to promoting gender equality in its institutions. 

Parliament has a Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM), which makes sure that all EU legislation takes account of gender equality. The committee organises an annual gender equality week to highlight research and promote discussion on this topic.

The proportion of female Members of the European Parliament has steadily increased over the years, and currently stands a little over 40 %. The number of women in key Parliament positions, such as vice-presidents, has also risen. Additionally, for the first time, there are now as many male as female members of the European Commission. Economic decision-making continues to be the  area where the EU scores the lowest in terms of gender equality and women’s representation. Nevertheless, the European Central Bank has set its own targets to promote gender balance.

The EU also established the European Institute for Gender Equality, which collects information about gender equality and advises EU policy makers. It also promotes the practice of gender mainstreaming, which encourages EU policy makers to consider how every new law affects gender equality.

EU fighting for a gender-equal world

In 2020, the Commission put forward a third gender action plan, to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment through all EU external action. This new action plan on gender equality and women’s empowerment in 2021-2025 external action aims at accelerating progress on empowering women and girls, and safeguarding gender equality gains.

In a March 2022 resolution, Parliament welcomed the third gender action plan. It called on the EU to work for stronger and systematic collaboration to promote gender equality in key areas of action:

  • eliminating all forms of gender-based violence;
  • ensuring access to healthcare for women and sexual and reproductive rights;
  • promoting economic and social rights and equality, and ensuring the autonomy of women and girls;
  • encouraging participation and leadership by women, girls and young women;
  • involving women in peacebuilding and security initiatives;
  • ensuring gender-responsive humanitarian actions;
  • building a green and digital society;
  • creating a true ‘generation equality’.

Further information

Keep sending your questions to the Citizens’ Enquiries Unit (Ask EP)! We reply in the EU language that you use to write to us.


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