The list of European problems is long: the Greek debt crisis, refugees in the Mediterranean, a war in Ukraine, and the rise of nationalist parties from Paris to Budapest. Before this backdrop, feminists have often found their fight for complete women’s equality – socially, politically, and economically – rejected as a lesser issue. Responses such as “I see your point in reducing the pay gap, but we have bigger problems to worry about, don’t you think?” are common, and likely all too familiar to those advocating for women’s improved standing in society. In these instances, gender activists often back down or even silently agree, postponing their ideas and plans for a later date when no other problems will seem to loom as prominently.
But what if we got things mixed up here? What if gender inequality is truly at the core of European problems? What if addressing gender equality is the first step to overcoming a myriad of other issues? There is actually some evidence indicating this to be true – gender inequality may in fact be the core problem in Europe, holding societies back from unfolding their fullest and truest potential. (This being a global issue, similar arguments will likely also apply to other parts of the world, but this article will focus on a European context.)
Last year, I took part in a research project focused on the European youth. We traveled to 14 EU and non-EU countries, speaking with young women and men about their perspectives on life, including their aspirations and goals. One peculiarity we noticed was that in almost every country, we met more politically active and hard-working women than men. Surely, there were stellar examples of active and committed men, but there were clearly more women. Whether at universities, in private settings, or simply on the street: European women were left no doubt that they were planning on making a difference – or already doing so. Especially in countries struck by disaster, financially or otherwise, the enthusiasm and courage with which young women tackle problems is inspiring and exemplary. We noticed that if Europe was to have a turn-around, it would be because of European women. It dawned on us that gender equality, then, might be the defining factor for Europe’s future.
Gender equality is only halfway achieved
Relatively speaking, Europe is already doing fine in regards to gender equality. This is particularly true for countries within the EU, where EU stipulations guarantee equal treatment regardless of one’s gender. Article 23 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union specifically states: “Equality between men and women must be ensured in all areas, including employment, work and pay.” This is as far as the legal aspect is concerned. You might call this the status de jure. But how is this playing out in real life for women in the EU?
The Gender Equality Index (GEI) is a good starting point to answer this question and helps us establish the de facto situation for women. This index is annually drafted by the European Institute of Gender Equality and compiles factors used as indicators (i.e. knowledge, money, work, time, violence, power, health, and intersecting inequalities) to determine differences between women and men. For this year, the top-ranking countries are Sweden, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium, with Romania, Slovakia, Portugal, Greece, and Bulgaria ranking the lowest. Comparing this to a global level, according to the 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, done by the World Economic Forum, the top five for the EU also are part of the top 15 worldwide, with Romania, the EU’s lowest-ranking country, still ranking at 70 out of 136. Most EU countries easily make the first third of the list, giving the EU a comfortable global standing for the GEI.
Where, then, is the problem? Right here. No country, worldwide or within the EU, has established even remote equality between women and men. Europe’s leading country in most gender statistics, Iceland, only holds a score of 87 (with 100 being complete equality), while Finland and Sweden clock in at the low 80s. The EU average on gender equality, according to the GEI, lies slightly below 53, meaning that, on average, gender equality in the EU is only halfway achieved. To anyone caring about such equality, this is bad news. And to anyone caring about Europe’s future, this is bad news, too.
Almost all decision-makers are men
What does gender equality have to do with Europe’s overall problems? A whole lot. It is clear that those countries that feature an overall healthier level of gender equality also fare better economically, socially, and politically. And this is not simply a question of economic success. True gender equality allows countries to unfold their full potential by relying on all their citizens’ creativity, passion, and commitment. In Europe this is particularly true when realizing that most top-level politicians, diplomats, CEOs, and journalists – those making key decisions and finding solutions to problems – are men. Angela Merkel is the famous exception to the rule, veiling the fact that Europe’s top problem solvers are almost exclusively male. This is not in and of itself bad, but it does subtract from the potential of problem-solving that would come with a more gender-diverse group of leaders in Europe and the EU.
The good news for Europe is that change is happening. Slowly – sometimes too slowly, it would seem – women move into positions of increased power and achieve equality, at least in individual or in small cases. In a few years, however, we will also see a broader change in European society. Today, women make up the majority of students enrolled in European universities and are increasingly pushing into the traditionally male-dominated STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. This wave of highly-qualified women will reach higher-ranking jobs in both public and non-public relations. University enrollment is not the only indicator – today, many political activists, young journalists, lawyers, and young members of think tanks are women, and this is a trend poised to continue.
Misogyny is real
This trend, however, does not by any means indicate that we can all just sit back and see positive change in the form of women’s empowerment sweep through Europe. On the contrary: As almost all movements for greater social inclusion, this one is experiencing significant backlash. Opposition against women’s empowerment is all too common – the degrading and highly sexualized depictions of women in the media is just the tip of the iceberg. Domestic violence as well as sexual assault are still major issues. The grossest and most appalling misogynism takes place in the form of human (sex) trafficking, with a large percentage of those trafficked being underage females. This takes place in our very European backyard; a perversely skewed image of women and their purpose. Even on a political and professional level, sexism is extremely prevalent. I cannot even remember how often I have heard of highly-qualified women being denied promotion after promotion by men who simply cannot handle strong women being in positions around them. And I can hardly imagine any female politician who could live a life similar to that of Dominique Strauss-Kahn or Silvio Berlusconi (or many others, for that matter) and still be able to continue their careers without facing larger problems.
However, the problem with sexism – in Europe or elsewhere – is not just men. It is a system, built around the assumption that women simply do not belong within the world of power and decision-making. This system also extends to women themselves, who, from early on, are systemically discouraged from believing in their own abilities to become change-makers. As a result, even the smartest women too often refuse to take credit for their great work or acknowledge that they have the power to bring about social or political change. With that, we not only lose an unspeakable amount of ideas, innovations, and improvements; we hinder our continent from living up to its full potential.
The key to Europe’s future
What is there to do? It’s simple. Let’s realize the promise of gender equality as stipulated by the EU Charter years ago. For women, this means not being satisfied with an almost-equal status. Everything less than equal is not only wrong but dangerous. For men, this means stepping up and combating sexism – the root of inequality – wherever it appears (and it appears all the time). As men, there is a need to drop the apprehension of the word “feminist” and realize that it stands for nothing else than somebody who truly values equality between the sexes.
Maybe it’s no coincidence that Europe is named after a woman. Let’s take it as an incentive to think of our continent as a place of gender equality – not just as a theoretical concept, but as a reality on our streets, in our cities and families. I truly believe that a gender-equal Europe will be able to overcome its never-ending series of problems and issues. We should continue to press for equality until it is achieved, not just for women’s sake, but for our whole continent’s sake.
_Inspiration for this article was found from the United Nations’ ‘HeForShe’ 2014 campaign. The initiative aimed to recruit men who would step up for women’s rights. Several male celebrities have since publicly proclaimed themselves feminists. For European men, it is time to join the team of Matt Damon, Ryan Gosling, and Joseph Gordon-Lewitt, as I did, and say: “I am a feminist”. I know plenty of other men who are, too. _