Home Partners About the project Outputs and results Steering Committees Important presentations Links Contact


Up ] Next ]

 Prepared by the Office of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsman

The Treaty of the European Union obliges Member States to promote equality between women and men. Over the years, the principle of gender equality has been reinforced with legislation. In the 1990s, the policy of gender mainstreaming was introduced. This new strategy strived to include gender equality issues in all activities – in the “mainstream”. Gender mainstreaming calls for all EU policies to take into account the different situations of women and men.


The EU has a structural approach to achieving gender equality. Its five-year plan – the Community Framework Strategy on Gender Equality (2001–2005) – covers equality in economic, social and civil life, equal participation and representation, and changing gender roles and stereotypes. A series of actors collaborate to deliver the objective of gender equality, including the European Parliament, the Council, and the Commission. NGOs advise the Commission through the Advisory Committee.

The European Commission is the main implementation body within the EU structure, and also the body that proposes new legislation. The Equal Opportunities Unit is based in the EU Commission Directorate General for Employment, Industrial Relations and Social Affairs. It is responsible for ensuring compliance with the EU Directives on equal opportunities for women and men. This Unit is also charged with the implementation of the Community Framework Strategy on Gender Equality.

The President of the Commission and a number of Commissioners comprise the Commissioners Group on Equality. They maintain an overview on equal opportunities between women and men at European Commission level and discuss in particular the question of mainstreaming a gender perspective into all services and policies.

The Advisory Committee on Equal Opportunities between men and women is an advisory body composed of ministerial representatives from the Member States of the EU. It meets regularly to give opinions to the European Commission on major new policies that have an effect on women.

Members of government of the Member States meet in the Council of Ministers. The Social Affairs Council of Ministers, where national ministers of social affairs are represented, is the Council that is responsible for most decisions relating to the equality of women and men. Very often, it has the final word onlegislation and programmes in this field.

The European Parliament (EP) is the only European institution elected directly by the citizens of the Member States. The European Parliament does not have full legislative power, as do parliaments in Member States, but it can give political signals and has control over the budget legislation, policies and many political actions affecting women. It drafts reports on the Commission’s proposals on women’s rights, organises public hearings and defines budget priorities for Women’s Programmes. The work of the European Parliament is organised in different parliamentary Committees, including the Committee on Women’s Rights. This Committee has played an important role in advancing gender equality issues within the EP.

A major actor in the field of gender equality is the European Women’s Lobby. EWL follows very closely the processes of changing the EU Treaties, all legislative proposals having a gender aspect and tries to integrate a gender perspective in all areas. EWL takes positions on the different legislative proposals and lobbies of the EC and the EP.


 EU legislation established in the area of gender equality enforces equal pay for women and men for same work and work of equal value; equal treatment in employment and vocational training, promotion and working conditions; equal treatment in social security (statutory and occupational schemes). It protects workers in cases of pregnancy and maternity; paternity in member states recognising such rights; specific rights for parental leave for fathers and mothers. Protection is ensured against direct and indirect discrimination based on sex, including marital or family status, as well as protection against harassment based on sex and sexual harassment. Victims of discrimination can go to Court and are protected by measures against retaliation. The legislation ensures reversal of the burden of proof (the presumed author of discrimination must prove that he/she did not make any discrimination) and sanctions for those who perpetrated the discrimination, as well as compensation for the victims. The EU promotes preventive measures against discrimination by employers, especially in cases of harassment based on sex and sexual harassment. Positive actions are endorsed for under-represented groups, equality plans in companies encouraged, the role of Social Partners and dialogue with non governmental organisations emphasised. Moreover, EU legislation establishes a requirement to have bodies for the promotion of equality between women and men in every Member state.

One of the effects of the Amsterdam Treaty is that equal opportunities for women and men are now considered one of the fundamental aims of the Union. In the Treaty the Member States lay down that gender equality issues will be taken into account in all of the Union’s doings, or in other words that the Union will adopt what is known as the mainstreaming strategy.

An important task in the EU is to supplement the treaties with laws – directives – that go into more detail about the goals that the Member States have agreed on in the treaties. In the field of gender equality there are a number of joint directives:

  • Council Directive of 10 February 1975 on the approximation of the laws of the member states relating to the application of the principle of equal pay for men and women (75/117/EEC) stipulates equal pay for equal work and work of equal value;
  • Equal Treatment Directive (76/207/EEC) establishes prohibition against direct or indirect discrimination (the latter means that a rule that appears to be neutral might in actual fact be disadvantageous for a particular group, as in the case of a decision by an employer to pay lower pensions to part-time workers, as almost all of those who work part-time are women);
  • Directive 2002/73/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 September 2002 amending Council Directive 76/207/EEC on the implementation of the principle of equal treatment for men and women as regards access to employment, vocational training and promotion, and working conditions (Text with EEA relevance)
  • Council Directive 97/80/EC of 15 December 1997 on the burden of proof in cases of discrimination based on sex stipulates who has to prove what in cases involving gender discrimination (it is up to the employer suspected of discrimination to show that there has been no discrimination based on gender in the workplace);
  • Council Directive of 19 December 1978 on the progressive implementation of the principle of equal treatment for men and women in matters of social security (79/7/EEC) guarantees equal rights to social security;
  • Council Directive of 24 July 1986 on the implementation of the principle of equal treatment for men and women in occupational social security schemes (86/378/EEC) protects women’s and men’s right to be treated equally where company or occupational social security schemes are concerned, with regard to pension entitlement, for instance;
  • Council Directive of 20 December 1996 amending Directive 86/378/EEC on the implementation of the principle of equal treatment for men and women in occupational social security schemes (96/97/EC)
  • Council Directive of 3 June 1996 on the framework agreement on parental leave (96/34/EC) stipulates that both women and men should have the right to at least three months unpaid parental leave;
  • Council Directive 92/85/EEC of 19 October 1992 on the introduction of measures to encou rage improvements in the safety and health at work of pregnant workers and workers who have recently given birth or are breastfeeding establishes the rights of the women who are pregnant or who have just given birth: the right to at least 14 weeks leave in connection with the delivery and the right to retain their wages or other forms of remuneration.
  • Council Directive 86/613/EEC of 11 December 1986 on the application of the principle of equal treatment between men and women engaged in an activity, including agriculture, in a self-employed capacity, and on the protection of self-employed women during pregnancy and motherhood.


 In the 1990s it was realised that a new approach was needed to achieve equality in practice. At the Fourth UN World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, gender mainstreaming was included as a principal strategy for promoting gender equality in large parts of the world. The new strategy strives to include issues impinging on gender equality in all activities. All proposed changes are now to be analysed from a gender equality point of view.

One of the objectives to which priority is given in the EU action programmes is an equitable distribution of women and men in the decision-making process. The Council of Ministers has exhorted the Member States and the EU institutions to recruit more women to decision-making positions. In a recommendation issued in 1996 (96/694/EC) the Council calls for more initiatives that will result in an even distribution between women and men involved in decision making. The representation of women in decision-making positions has increased considerably in recent years.

The Commission has also begun to review its own organisation and its internal workings. An equal opportunities group has been appointed, whose task is to ensure that gender equality issues are taken into account throughout the Commission, on every level and in every field. In 1998 the Council of Ministers adopted new regulations in order to place more women in senior posts in the EU institutions. In these regulations the Ministers make equality of opportunity one of the objectives in recruitment and promotion to senior posts within the EU institutions. The ministers want more women directors and middle-level managers. They also want the institutions to recruit more women at senior executive level.

A cornerstone in the gender equality programme of the EU is that women and men must have the same opportunities to support themselves and attain financial independence. The EU has introduced a large number of measures to bring this about. Apart from the directives on equal conditions in the labour market and the right to parental leave, the EU also has common guidelines on employment. Each Member State follows up the common guidelines each year to give them concrete expression in national action plans for employment. In the action plans the Member States commit themselves to policies that will lead to increased equality in the labour market. Female employment in the EU countries now stands at close to 55 per cent. The Union contributes to this with actions to reconcile work and family life, including care facilities for children and other dependants. The EU has set a target employment rate of 60 per cent for women to be reached by 2010.

Equal pay for equal work is a fundamental principle in the EU. It was the Treaty of Amsterdam that explicitly introduced the principle that women and men are to receive the same pay for the same work or work of equal value. Women and men are to be paid the same wages not only when they are doing the same job but also when the work they are doing is of equal value. The Treaty of Amsterdam also permits what is called positive discrimination in the labour market. This means that an employer can apply special measures to women, or men, if they are in the minority in a workplace, for instance by making it easier for them to be promoted or to undergo further training. Despite this, women still earn less than men. Closing the gender pay gap therefore, remains at the top of the EU policy agenda. Promoting entrepreneurship amongst women is also a major goal for the EU.

The Beijing Platform for action included among its strategic objectives the fight to eradicate violence against women, covering in particular physical, sexual and psychological violence within the family. Combating violence against women is one of the fundamental issues on the European social agenda. Thus, at EU level, decisive progress has been made on making trafficking in human beings a criminal offence and enforcing legislation.

Over the last few decades, women in the EU have closed the education gap and even surpassed men in terms of numbers of university graduates. Women are more likely than men to go on university education and to graduate. But there are still large differences in the fields of study chosen by women and men. Men greatly outnumber women in science and engineering, while women dominate in arts and humanities. There remain education sectors seen as “female”, which normally lead to lower paid jobs. The elimination of these stereotypes is one of the EU’s priorities.

Gender equality is intrinsic in external aid from the Community budget and European Development fund.

Meanwhile, emphasis has shifted towards the equality of men and women outside the field of employment. New areas analysed under a gender perspective include world trade and globalisation, EU enlargement, fisheries, and asylum and refugee policy. EU concerns about gender equality are being integrated into a broader policy regarding non-discrimination on the basis of factors such as race, age and sexual orientation.