European Parliament & gender equality—a continuing struggle

by Petra Ahrens and Lise Rolandsen Agustín on 22nd May 2020 @petrahrens
There has been progress in the numerical representation of women in the European Parliament. But that’s not enough to achieve gender equality. The European Parliament is often presented as firmly supporting gender equality—not least through its Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM) as a focus for related policy development in the European Union.
At around 40 per cent, female members of the EP currently comprise one of the highest proportions of any parliament worldwide (see figure below). Just before the 2019 Euro-elections, in 21 member states the share of female MEPs was higher than in their national parliament and in three cases comprised the majority: Finland (76.3 per cent), Croatia and Ireland (both 54.5 per cent).
Nevertheless, this descriptive (numerical) representation does not allow conclusions to be drawn about substantive representation—promoting gender equality in EP policies—nor about the gender sensitivity of the parliament and its organs as institutions. While the EP has received ample attention from researchers, the different layers of gender equality and what becoming a gender-sensitive parliament entails are under-researched. Our recently co-edited volume addresses how the EP fares in the important political and societal task of advancing gender equality in the round.
Strong promoter
From an overarching historical perspective, the EP indeed qualifies as a strong promoter of gender equality and contradicts the common association of ‘women in, power out’. Indeed, women’s representation has increased in parallel with the increase in power of the EP as an EU institution. The parliament—and, in particular, its FEMM committee—acts as an agenda-setter by adopting (own-initiative) reports and resolutions, (co-)legislating EU directives, and scrutinising prospective members of the European Commission on their positions on gender equality.
Over the years, the EP has extended the scope of gender equality from its limited original focus on the labour market, to development, education, gender-based violence, migration and work-life balance. Most of the proposals supporting gender equality have been supported by large majorities, despite the growing number of conservative, right-wing and anti-feminist MEPs in recent legislatures.
Such a stronghold of gender-equality promotion is important—not least because the EP has gained considerable powers over time as co-legislator with the Council of the EU in the majority of policy domains, the EP is the budgetary authority, and it approves the composition of the European Commission and elects its president. Yet, overall, gender equality is becoming more and more politicised and marked by polarisation at the European level.
When looking at the internal EP organisation, the FEMM committee stands out with its activities, but the changed composition of the parliament is also reflected in the committee’s debates. Opposition to gender equality has increased, while links with grassroots movements and civil society organisations working for equality have come under pressure.
Moreover, the EP structures exhibit a gendered division of labour despite the continuous progress: men remain a minority on the ‘low-status’ FEMM committee and the few male members are less likely to take an active role in its work. Notably, different political alliances are at work in the committee and the EP plenary, and lead to interesting results regarding inter-group coalitions as well as intra-group cohesion. At the plenary level, intra-group cohesion is high and the large political groups enter into coalitions; at the committee level, however, cohesion is lower in centre-right and right-wing groups, while centre-left and left-wing groups do tend to form coalitions in FEMM.
Political agency
It is often expected that weak opportunities for women’s interests to be advanced at the national level may lead to stronger mobilisation within the EP, as an alternative strategy to promote gender equality. EP procedures, however, shape MEPs’ ability to promote gender equality, and dynamics between the national and EU levels play an often underestimated role. In the Irish case, national party-political discipline limits the political agency of their female MEPs and constrains particularly centrist and right-wing MEPs, who—given national pressures regarding abortion legislation, only recently reformed—have refused membership in the FEMM Committee.
The manifold dynamics also become visible for female MEPs from post-communist member states. Numerically, women are better represented in the EP than at the national level and, substantively, gender-equality issues are less contested there, which enhances the scope to act in favour of women’s interests. There is a ‘socialisation-effect’ whereby MEPs from post-communist member states are socialised into a gender-equality mindset, rather than influencing the EP in a conservative direction.
The mixed picture of the EP regarding gender equality in its structures, policies, and practices shows the pitfalls of mainstreaming gender in a supranational parliamentary institution. Gender equality is still habitually misunderstood as a ‘women’s issue’—often in a way which essentialises identity—or defensively restricted to its ‘business case’. Many MEPs continue to see gender equality as a niche with little to do with other policy domains and thus commitment to gender equality remains limited in a lot of committees and political groups. In addition, the growing number of oppositional forces which hold essentialist views of women, and men, threaten the position of the EP as a strong gender-equality advocate.
On a more basic level, debates about introducing gender quotas for EP elections have led nowhere and thus it remains a matter for aggregate national decisions whether we will ever see a gender balance among MEPs and in the political groups. Moreover, we lack data on ‘intersectional’ aspects of equality, such as age, (dis)abilities or ethnicity for MEPs and also for their national and political-group distribution. Yet, without question, people of colour are particularly under-represented in the EP and this has worsened since ‘Brexit’.
The EP administration also suffers from an unequal representation of women and men, although this has improved, and again a lack of data on intersectional aspects. Moreover, men are over-represented in leadership positions and middle management and under-represented among lower staff levels—vice versa for women.
Decision-making blocked
As regards steering EU policies, being co-legislator has improved the EP’s powers. But when the council disagrees with EP amendments, it can simply block further decision-making in the increasing number of ‘trilogues’. These informal meetings ensure efficiency at the cost of transparency and allow for political manoeuvring, thus posing a challenge to democracy and gender equality.
Importantly, the EP has even been excluded from economic and financial governance connected to the European Semester, while its powers in sanctioning member states violating EU core values such as gender equality and human rights generally are too limited. Furthermore, the diversity of situations of women from different EU member states, for instance in care work, and how this challenges achieving gender equality in all member states, is almost ignored.
In sum, all three aspects—descriptive representation, substantive representation and gender-equal institutional organisation—are important for a fully gender-sensitive parliamentary institution. Given its extended powers, however, an EP which fully promoted and secured gender equality throughout its policies, practices and structures could be a game changer vis-à-vis the council, thereby challenging governments actively promoting an anti-equality agenda.
(Petra Ahrens is senior researcher at Tampere University, Finland, in the ERC-
funded research project ‘Gender, party politics and democracy in Europe: a study of the European Parliament’s party groups’ (EUGenDem). Lise Rolandsen Agustín is associate professor at the Centre for Gender Research (FREIA) at Aalborg University, Denmark.)