Engendered or Endangered


Gender Agenda

Gender Agenda
Issue 1 Lent 2003
The magazine of


Women's Union

Engendered or endangeredImogen Osborn

The current text setting out the objectives for the EU, the Treaty of
Amsterdam dating from 1997, is in the process of being reformed. By the
end of this month, a new text will be finalised which may become a
European Constitution. In the draft version presented on 28th October,
Gender Equality has been omitted as an objective of the Union.

Very broadly defined, “Gender Equality” implies men and women being
treated equally and given equal opportunities, in all aspects of social
and political life, and the enforcement of programs against exclusion and
negative discrimination.

Gender Equality has been recognised by the EU since 1957, so the
removal of this as an objective of the Union would represent a huge step
backwards of forty-five years, completely at odds with the EU’s aims of
stability and growth in an efficient democracy, which cannot be realised
without attention to Gender Equality. The situation is all the more
serious given that the EU is one of the three most powerful, and
therefore influential, areas of the world. Moreover as more countries
apply to join the EU, social issues unavoidably become more important.

It is also ironic that the draft Constitution overlooked such an
important area of human rights, given that the Union has previously
attached importance to this subject: for example, Turkey’s application to
join the EU was refused as their human rights legislation was not up to
scratch, and Article 42 of the current treaty states that “Any … state
which respects … democracy, the rule of law and … human rights has
the right to become a member” of the EU. Not only this, but until now the
EU has taken steps to respect the need for Gender Equality, for instance,
creating Advisory Committees and Commissioners for Equal Opportunities,
and instigating gender mainstreaming policies. (This refers to “taking
account of gender issues in all policy, programming, administrative and
financial actions and organisational procedures.” Mainstreaming may
involve positive discrimination in favour of women, for example requiring
that a certain percentage of employment positions in a business are
filled by women.)

The instigation of these policies does not mean that Gender Equality is
no longer a relevant concern. According to one website, 70% of the UK’s
poor are women. In 1997 only 5% of the French national parliament were
women, although Finland was doing a little better by 2000, with 38.9% of
the national government as women. It is much harder to find any
statistics on what ranks women and men achieve in their employment,
although it seems generally that women are much less likely than men to
reach top management positions. With such existing inequality between men
and women, what will happen if the issue is further ignored by being
omitted from the Constitution?

Perhaps one argument against certain Gender Equality policies is the
anger that positive discrimination favouring women sometimes
causes. Women are left wondering whether they have been chosen for a job
solely on the basis of their intellectual potential or whether they were
needed to make sure that the organisation met the necessary quota of
females in employment. Others may feel these policies disadvantage
men. To what extent is this an improvement on earlier discrimination
against women? Arguably, it is a great improvement if it enables more
women to get the jobs they deserve, but the uncertainty the policy leaves
behind illustrates the ever present difficulties in achieving true Gender
Equality.

Positive discrimination raises the question of men’s involvement in
these issues. In a recent petition for the inclusion of Gender Equality as
an objective of the EU in the new Constitution, circulated in Cambridge
University, only around 9% of signatories were men. Whilst this is
probably not the best example, given distribution, time, publicisation
and population sample constraints, it reflects the fact that despite the
need for men to support Gender Equality, their involvement is often
lacking. Not necessarily because they are chauvinistic or do not care,
but perhaps because they lack experience of and information about gender
discrimination, because they fear ridicule for campaigning for Gender
Equality in a society which does not always overtly encourage men’s
involvement, or because they feel that the power they may have grown up
to see established and defined as men’s will be threatened if women gain
more rights.

Men too can benefit from greater Gender Equality: parental leave for
both parents, for example, or ensuring that workplace policies intended to
help women do not disadvantage men. From the point of view of both sexes,
examining the meanings and uses of masculinity and femininity and the
relations between men and women is essential in achieving gender
equality. The UNDP, an EU organisation for men’s involvement in gender
issues, encouragingly proposes schemes for male networking on gender
issues and male-only learning sessions about them, zero tolerance
policies on sexual harassment, initiatives to involve academic and high
profile men in supporting Gender Equality, and promotion of male Gender
Equality advocacy figures. Yet organisations such as this would be
expected to suffer if Gender Equality is removed from the objectives of
the EU, worsening the existing problem.

Some people might argue that the inclusion of the Gender Equality
clause in a new Constitution is unimportant as the EU is not a federal
state with a single governing body, and as the Constitution may not even
be implemented. But whether it is or whether the new text remains a
Treaty, like the current Treaty of Amsterdam, the fact remains that it
presents a set of legally binding objectives for EU member states. What’s
more, what is established now will be built on in the future. These
factors give vital importance to what objectives are included in any
Treaty or Constitution.

Gender Equality should be a fundamental objective of the EU, in terms
of power, influence, social conditions and situation and prospects in
working life. It should be taken into account right from the planning
stage of every decision, hopefully bringing about further long lasting
changes in family situations, institutions and workplaces. Not only
should it be considered in internal policies but external ones as well.

The situation is complicated by the lack of women in the committees
responsible for making the new Constitutional text. Edith Cresson, the
first female Prime Minister of France, identifies women’s “lack of
enthusiasm for participating in formal organisations.” This probably
stems from the gender inequality and stereotyping that women find in
their social environment, and at the same time delays the resolution of
these problems. Our social situation thus creates a vicious circle.
Excluding the Gender Equality clause from a Constitution would add to
this.

Even if it is reinserted, the very fact that it was omitted in the
draft highlights a certain lack of awareness about the issue. Indeed much
of the information on the internet about Gender Equality and the EU is
not up to date and not easily accessible. What there is is often
complicated by terminology and jargon, seeming to obscure a lack of
concrete policies and information.

Opening the Gender Equality issue to public debate, making more people
aware of the problems, and developing more concrete and internationally
applicable policies is fundamental to remedying these numerous
difficulties. To quote the UNDP, “Human development, if not engendered,
is endangered.” Although equality between the sexes should not ever have
arisen as an issue, the past and current social inequalities mean that it
now must be addressed, making the inclusion of Gender Equality in the
objectives of the EU imperative.

 

 


 

Email us at gender-agenda@cusu.cam.ac.uk