14 October 2019 6 MIN reading

The EU’s priorities for the year(s) ahead: where is gender equality?

President Juncker’s speech on the State of the Union (SOTEU) marks the beginning of the school year in Brussels. This year’s speech was also a farewell as it is the last for President Juncker who will step down when his current term ends in 2019. Every year the speech is scrutinized and categorized: pessimistic was the consensus in 2016, 2017 was hailed as an optimistic speech and some have considered 2018’s to be complacent with the Union’s and particularly the Commission’s progress.

SOTEU also constitutes a good thermometer on where the Commission stands on the major political and policy issues and in this sense, what stands out over the President’s speeches year after year is a blatant omission: gender equality. This year there was no mention whatsoever to gender equality and the only remotely connected topic was the reference to 239 million men and women who are currently employed in Europe. The letter of intent to President Antonio Tajani and to Chancellor Sebastian Kurz states that “we cannot pause for a second in showing to our citizens that the European Union is there to protect, empower and defend them”. Last year’s meagre reference to the subject was a general mention to equality as one of the three principles that make up a more democratic, united and stronger Europe: equality between East and South, North and West, citizens and consumers, without first and second-class categories. But still no reference to the gender gap that still exists in Europe.

And yet this gap is very real. According to the European Commission, on average women earn 16 % less than men per hour of work. And over the last five years, this gap has stagnated. Some factors accounting for this gap are segregation in sector and occupations and existing work-life balance policies. This in turn leads to women working part-time more often than men (almost a third of women of women aged 20-64 in the EU in 2016 worked part time, compared to only 8.2% of men, according to Eurostat; and female unemployment in 2017 was at 7.9% for women compared to 7.4% for men). As a consequence, the gender overall earnings gap during active years has reached 41 % and leads to a very wide gender gap in pensions, which today stands at 40 %.

So although it is undoubtedly a question of values and principles that make up the EU (Article 157 TFEU sets out the principle of equal pay) it is fundamentally a question of economic impact and competitiveness. A 2015 Mckinsey report found that $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality. In the EU, attracting more women to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics sector would contribute to an increase in EU GDP per capita of 2.2 to 3% in 2050. According to the IMF, closing the gender gap could boost GDP by 4% in Canada and Japan, and over 30% in countries like Niger and Pakistan.

The EU is obviously aware of the situation, as it has over the years developed a series of specific measures, mostly soft law, to tackle this issue (European pact for gender equality, Strategic engagement for gender equality, EU Action Plan 2017-2019: Tackling the Gender Pay Gap). And yet what’s still missing is that all the recommendations, the statistics, the facts need to be mainstreamed into the EU’s political goals. That in order for the EU to continue to be a trade giant and a global player, as President Juncker stated in his speech, improving gender equality is brought on board as another tool to contribute to improve the EU’s competitiveness. Gender equality should become a part of EU politics with a capital P, rather than just part of the myriad of policies that are scattered across the Union’s competences.

As Juncker said, 2019 is crucial. What remains to be seen is whether the new composition of the European institutions following the May 2019 elections will favour this change (in the current European Parliament only 37% of MEPs are women and amongst the major institutions, only the EEAS is led by a woman).


  1. Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council and the European Economic and Social Committee. EU Action Plan 2017-2019: Tacling the Gender Pay Gap. https://ec.europa.eu/transparency/regdoc/rep/1/2017/EN/COM-2017-678-F1-EN-MAIN-PART-1.PDF
  2. European Commission Strategic Engagement for Gender Equality https://ec.europa.eu/anti-trafficking/sites/antitrafficking/files/strategic_engagement_for_gender_equality_en.pdf
  3. How advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth: https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/employment-and-growth/how-advancing-womens-equality-can-add-12-trillion-to-global-growth


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