In women’s rights and gender equality, stereotyping is the worst thing

  • 2013-05-29
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

Silvana Koch-Mehrin, the 42-year-old German MEP and member of the group Women Rights and Gender Equality, is a vivid figure in speaking out for women’s rights and women’s larger role on the entrepreneurial and political stage across Europe. With the European Parliament and Commission deliberating a number of measures enhancing women’s rights and gender equality in the European Union, Koch-Mehrin has been with with the others out in front on the effort. The stark differences of attitudes to women’s rights are perhaps exemplified by the three Baltic States where, she says, “there are surely some differences.” Koch-Mehrin agreed to answer The Baltic Times questions.

Why is there the need to specifically address women’s rights in the European Union? Don’t the international human rights laws, EU and member states’ national legislation guarantee the rights?
Gender equality is guaranteed by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. While equality is a core component of international fundamental rights protection, gender inequalities persist in today’s EU. They are often compounded by various forms of discrimination, preventing women from enjoying their full rights. Until gender equality becomes a reality, we will need a specifically targeted EU legislation.

What main trends and peculiarities would you discern in women rights’ development and implementation in old EU member states, and new ones, like the three Baltic States?
The division into “Old” and “New” member states is not helpful. Also, not all of the member states that joined in 2004 can be considered the same in terms of their gender equality policies. As you know, Poland, Malta and Lithuania are very Catholic countries. Meanwhile Estonia or Slovenia are quite different in their traditional approaches. For example, until lately, Maltese people had to travel abroad to obtain divorces. Legislation introducing divorce came into effect only in October 2011.

Is there anything special about women’s rights in the Baltic States of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania? Could they be put on the same scale?
There are surely some differences. A good example is the gender pay gap, which is the difference between men’s and women’s pay within the economy as a whole. On average, women in the EU earn around 16 percent less per hour than men. Estonia is the country with the highest gender pay gap in the EU, where women earn 27.3 percent less per hour than men. In Lithuania the gender pay gap accounts for 11.9 percent and in Latvia for 13.6 percent - that is below the EU average.

Estonia is an Evangelical Lutheran country, Latvia comprises a mix of Christian faiths; meanwhile, nearly 90 percent of Lithuanian inhabitants consider themselves Roman Catholics. How important is the factor of religious affiliation for the cause of women’rights in the Baltic States?
I’d answer the question this way: all people are created equal and should be treated equally, regardless of their religious affiliation.

The EU has proposed a law foreseeing, among other things, women’s 40 percent presence in the boardroom by 2020, which is widely discussed in Western Europe but gained quite little attention in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. How do you explain that?
The proposal has a very limited scope. It touches only 5,000 listed companies in Europe. According to the Commission, it is estimated that only approximately 50 listed companies will be affected in the Baltic States - some 10 companies in Estonia, between 10-20 companies in Latvia and [the same] in Lithuania.

Why couldn’t the boardroom gender issue be rather left up to self-regulation, i.e. executive promotions? Doesn’t the enforcement of the enhanced EU women’s rights policy weaken the cause just because it is being enacted?
Traditional male networks still flourish. All over the EU, women are largely outnumbered by men in top leadership positions. They face a proverbial glass ceiling that hinders them to get to the top. Self-regulation proved by experience to be inefficient. The number of women on European company boards is currently 15.8 percent. Two-thirds of member states are at a complete standstill. The only real progress has been made in the Netherlands and France. These countries already have quota legislation in place. I share Viviane Reding’s opinion: “I don’t like quotas, but I like what quotas do.”

How did one come up with the 40 percent number in women’s presence in the boardrooms?
There is a misunderstanding. The proposed directive sets a minimum objective of 40 percent by 2020 for members of the under-represented sex for non-executive members. It refrains from establishing a fixed binding objective for executive board members. Companies are encouraged to take individual commitments to ensure gender balance at the CEO level. As for the 40 percent objective, the Commission proposal aims at finding the right balance: It is situated between the minimum of the “critical mass” of 30 percent and full gender parity (50 percent).
Can it be successfully implemented in fields where women’s presence in senior management positions has been scarce until now? For example, in arms-producing and military service providing companies?
The Commission proposal foresees an exception for companies where less than 10 percent of the work force is women. But by the way, one of the biggest arms producing companies has a woman as CEO - Linda Hudson (BAE Systems).

What could be the drawbacks of the 40 percent regulation?
It can’t see any drawbacks. In these difficult economic times, women have a crucial role to play in getting things back on track. Women account for 60 percent of all university graduates. Europe can’t afford to waste this potential if it wants to stay competitive.

What are the other EC proposes on gender equality rights until 2020? Do they envision any legislation in sharing parental responsibilities for both parents?
The Commission adopted its strategy for equality between women and men for the period 2010-2015. It aims at promoting gender equality in areas such as equal pay for equal work, dignity, equal economic independence, ending gender-based balance, etc. On parental leave, at the EU level, we have a directive of March 8, 2010 in place. It sets out minimum requirements on parental leave for male and female workers, and related employment protection. The aim is to reconcile work and family life and to promote equal opportunities. However, its implementation lies with each EU member state.

Will the EU legislation be mandatory for EU member states? How does Germany, the country you were elected to the EP, view the draft legislation?
The directive proposal sets a binding target of 40 percent. This objective should be met by 2020 for publicly listed companies and by 2018 for public undertakings. Its implementation is a member state’s responsibility. In any case, 11 EU member states have already introduced legal instruments to promote gender equality on company boards. As for Germany, we have general elections in September this year, and for the next legislative period the three big parties - Angela Merkels’ CDU, the Social Democrats, the Greens - share the objective of introducing a legally binding fixed quota.

Some conservative parties across the European Union, Lithuania included, are anxious that the enhanced women’s rights legislation is a Trojan horse for genderism and gay rights in Eastern Europe and the Baltics as well. How would you comment on that?
All people are created equal and should be treated equally regardless of their gender or sexual orientations. All should have the same chances.

Some Lithuanian politicians fear that the EU gender equality and women’s rights policies are erasing the traditional differences of genders and are destroying the century-long traditions. Is it really so? Is there anything to be afraid of?
Stereotyping is the worst thing you can do. Responsibilities should be equally shared by both women and men in all areas of life.

What is your personal secret to becoming a successful politician, MEP, a loving mother and wife?
Follow your heart.