Written by Ionel Zamfir.
Progress on gender equality at risk
International Women’s Day is a good opportunity to take stock of progress achieved on gender equality and women rights. This year however, global indicators do not provide much reason to celebrate. Where not completely stalled by the COVID‑19 pandemic, progress has been slim, and the new economic challenges caused by the conflict in Europe present another formidable obstacle.
Only in the area where disparity between men and women is the greatest – power – has some progress been seen. The 2022 Gender Equality Index, published by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), found that, due to the impact of the COVID‑19 pandemic, gender equality in the European Union would have regressed without the gains made in the power domain, and particularly in economic decision-making. Nevertheless, there were also exceptions: the power equality index fell compared to pre-pandemic levels in Estonia and Romania. On the other hand, gender equality at work and in knowledge stagnated or regressed in most EU countries.
The situation is by no means better at global level. The 2022 Global Gender Gap report published by the World Economic Forum (a global think tank) warns that progress on gender equality globally has stalled because of ‘the economic and social consequences of the pandemic and geopolitical conflict’, and could even go into reverse.
Greater participation of women in economic and political life has multiple benefits. For example, in the digital sector and economy – the focus of this year’s session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women – data show that the women’s participation in scientific and technological sectors in Europe remains low. Only one in five information and communication technology (ICT) specialists and one in three science, technology, engineering and/or mathematics (STEM) graduates are women. The drop-out rate from digital careers among 30‑44 year old women working in the digital sector is higher than that among men. This is likely related to motherhood and caregiving responsibilities. In addition, a significant gender salary gap in the ICT sector persists. Recruiting more women in the technology sector could be pivotal in closing the talent gap (where the ICT sector faces an unprecedented shortage of ICT professionals). The European Institute for Gender Equality stresses that closing the gender gap in STEM careers would help increase EU per capita GDP by 2.2‑3.0 % by 2050.
In the political area, several Member States still lag behind on women’s participation despite its multiple benefits: lending legitimacy to governing institutions and better representing women’s experience, interests and needs. This is all the more important as the current cost of living crisis affects women more severely. On the other hand, new obstacles have emerged. The political backlash against women rights has continued and intensified. Women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights have come under renewed attack, across the world as well as in the EU. In Poland, which has adopted a draconian anti-abortion law, defenders of women’s reproductive rights such as Justyna Wydrzyńska have faced judicial harassment.
Women in the shadow of war
In Europe, war has reminded the public of the horrific effects it can have on women in conflict areas, as well as of the need for international justice to hold those responsible for such crimes accountable. Women are among the most badly affected by the conflict in Ukraine, whether as victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity, or because of the consequences of war, exposing them to food and energy deprivation, health risks, job losses, and an increased burden of care in the absence of men sent to the frontline. However, Ukrainian women have shown their courage and resilience in the face of adversity: many have been active in the army or have provided relief to those affected by the war. They have led civil society initiatives to reform their country and prepare it for EU membership, although their representation of women in Ukrainian politics remains low.
Elsewhere in Europe, the current generation of women leaders (such as Heads of State or Government in Estonia, Finland, Italy or Moldova, the President of the European Parliament, the President of the European Commission, or the Foreign Minister in Germany, for instance), has reacted to the Russian aggression in Ukraine with strong determination and commitment to the respect of international principles.
The war in Ukraine has had a devastating impact on women all over the world. According to a report by United Nations Women, Global Gendered Impacts of the Ukraine Crisis, it has aggravated food insecurity in developing countries (already more severe for women than men), and has exposed women to increased health risks due to the energy crisis.
The cost of living crisis in Europe: impact on women
In the European Union, the ongoing cost of living crisis has added another layer to the negative effects of the pandemic on gender inequality. Energy and food prices have spiked, driven by the serious risk of shortages on the EU and world markets. While shortages have not yet materialised, inflation looks set to persist and, as a result, ever more people are coming under increased financial pressure and at greater risk of energy poverty – particularly women.
Existing statistical data provides an albeit incomplete picture of the distinct ways in which rising energy prices affect men and women. The graph below, based on Eurostat data, shows that households with children headed by a single adult have been hardest hit by rising energy prices. Their share under all three dimensions (arrears on utility bills, capacity to keep the home warm, and living in buildings with leaks or rotten window frames) analysed in the graph is higher in almost all cases than for the average household category. Based on Eurostat statistics from 2021, women make up 83 % of single-parent households and are therefore the most likely to be affected by the energy crisis. A Eurofound survey from the spring of 2022 confirmed these trends. It found that the share of women who were late in paying their energy bills surged in the spring of 2022, and that single women and single mothers were more likely than other groups to struggle to pay their energy bills.
Existing inequalities among men and women compound vulnerability to energy poverty, particularly those related to income, such as the gender pay gap, the gender pension gap, and women’s more limited possibilities to work compared to men because of their disproportionate burden of care for children and other close relatives. Women are over-represented in relatively low-paying sectors, such as care, health and education, and in part-time work, and therefore more vulnerable to the energy crisis, which has had a severe impact on those with a low income.
- Living in homes with a leaking roof, damp walls, floors or foundation, or rot in window frames or floor (2020)
- Unable to keep home warm (2021)
- With arrears in utility bills (2021)
Age too plays a role in women’s vulnerability to energy poverty. With women in the EU living longer than men (an age gap that in some EU Member States reaches up to 10 years), and often receiving lower pensions, they are at an increased risk of energy poverty. Age also makes people particularly sensitive to cold and exposes them to increased health risks.
While the energy crisis has put a strain on ordinary citizens, particularly those most vulnerable, energy companies have made record profits. Against this background, data from the International Energy Agency demonstrates that the energy sector has historically been and continues to be male-dominated. As of 2018, there were 76 % fewer women than men working in the energy sector (in 29, mostly EU, countries investigated) and the average gender wage gap conditional on skills was -15 %.
In line with the obligation imposed by EU legislation to protect vulnerable energy consumers, EU countries have tried to mitigate the impact of rising energy prices on the general population, and in certain cases specifically on the most vulnerable persons, mainly through reduced tariffs and cash benefits. A more comprehensive approach – one that goes beyond the measures taken to alleviate the direct impact of rising energy prices on women – necessarily entails tackling structural inequalities, particularly in income, between women and men. EU action has historically made a difference in this important area. Equal pay for equal work, or work of equal value between men and women, has been a right in the EU since 1957. Yet, implementation and enforcement of the equal pay for equal work principle remain a challenge The painful truth is … women in the European Union are paid on average 13 % less than men (Eurostat, 2020), which equals more than one month’s salary. One concern is that, because of a lack of pay transparency, pay discrimination often goes undetected, and victims face difficulties in obtaining redress. The adoption of the proposed EU pay transparency directive (which is presently going through the legislative procedure, with the Parliament and the Council having reached agreement in December 2022), could be an important step in closing the gender pay gap.
European Parliament position
In its resolution of 5 July 2022 on women’s poverty in Europe, the European Parliament underlined that women’s poverty increases the risk of energy poverty, among other risks, and that policy measures tailored specifically to single parents are needed. It further stressed ‘that access to affordable utilities must be guaranteed to low-income households, and in particular older women and single mothers’. In its 2021 opinion on the proposed directive on energy efficiency, Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee (FEMM) called on Member States to adopt specific measures to support women, combat the feminisation of energy poverty and include all citizens in the green transition.
With regard to women directly affect by the war in Ukraine, in a 5 May 2022 resolution on the impact of the war on women, the Parliament strongly condemned the use of sexual and gender-based violence as a weapon of war, stressing that it is a war crime.
Related EPRS publications for International Women’s Day
- Gender aspects of energy poverty, EPRS At a Glance, I. Zamfir, 15 February 2023
- Women in politics in the EU: State of play, , R. Shreeves, I. Zamfir, EPRS Briefing, March 2023 update
- Equal pay for equal work between men and women: Pay transparency and enforcement mechanisms, M. Lecerf, EPRS Briefing, 8 February 2023
- Women in the digital sector, S. di Luca, EPRS At a Glance, 2 March 2023
- For more EPRS publications related to women rights and gender equality, see Topical Digest Gender equality across policy areas, March 2023
Related EPRS multimedia
Video on Gender aspects of energy poverty:
Chronicles on Care work in the EU:
Equal pay for equal work between men and women