How will more female EU leadership change the bloc’s governance?

Anna Mulrine Grobe

When Ursula von der Leyen was named the first female president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, she promptly announced that she would be seeking gender balance among her college of commissioners. 

Since 1958, just 35 of the EU’s 183 commissioners have been women, she pointed out. “We represent half of our population. We want our fair share.” What ultimately emerged was a set of 14 men and 11 women (due to one female candidate being rejected over integrity concerns and replaced by a man), giving Dr. von der Leyen’s college the largest female representation ever in the commission.

The new commissioners, who took office this week, will shape the priorities and political agenda of the European Union for the next five years. To that end, they have pledged to use the improved gender parity to breathe new life into previously stalled women’s equality measures, including efforts to address gender pay and pension gaps, violence against women, costly child care, and the digital gender divide.

This “more realistic” gender balance “is a big boost to democracy. It will be better reflective of the population, which is not 80% male,” says Christal Morehouse, senior program officer at the Open Society Foundations. “But I also think there’s a big connection between the symbolism of it, and what we’ll be able to measure and see on the ground as this goes forward.”

A different dynamic

That symbolism is powerful, and it is the culmination of a number of societal movements, says Corinna Horst, senior fellow and deputy director of the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “There is a development happening – you have the election of [U.S. President Donald] Trump and the #MeToo movement that helped bring back civil society engagement, saying, ‘We have an issue.’” Men woke up to this as well, “realizing they had wives, daughters who were affected.”

This helped move the debate to a “different level,” Dr. Horst says. “Now we’re at the stage where there are some more practical, tangible things happening. You see it in ‘manels,’” the all-male panel discussions that used to take place frequently in the capitals of Washington, D.C., and Brussels. “You’d say, ‘Why don’t you invite a woman?’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, we couldn’t find one.’ Now it’s, ‘Yes, you can – just look harder.’”

Now, at the highest levels of EU government, “We no longer have these pictures of summits of leaders as all men in gray suits. Now there’s some color and a skirt in there somewhere. And it changes perceptions. People see it and say, ‘Oh wow, this is different,’ but slowly it becomes normal.”

And this “new normal” has the potential to reshape the conversations within the commission, Dr. Horst adds. “It becomes part of our DNA, and I think we’ll see changes in how we do things.”

This includes, for example, how meetings are held. “I’m not saying women are better leaders – we have examples that aren’t that enlightened. But there is a tendency for women to be much more interested in the outcome, in finding solutions and the ultimate goal rather than a need to demonstrate power. It’s really listening and being a bit more empathetic, so it’s creating a different dynamic in the room. It’s not a winner-take-all confrontation, but more of a compromise – which is a very European thing.”

It’s a dynamic that corporate boards have recognized as well, since a diverse set of members with different life experiences tend to yield better bottom-line outcomes. Foreign policy analysts have concluded this, too. In the past two decades, women have made up just 4% of signatories to peace deals, yet when women’s groups take part, the resulting agreements are less likely to fail, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Commissioner for equality

It’s a message Dr. von der Leyen has taken to heart. The first tangible step toward her platform of gender inclusion was her creation of a commissioner for equality post, which will be filled by Helena Dalli of Malta.

During her confirmation hearing, Ms. Dalli told members of the European Parliament that in her first 100 days on the job she will be enacting a “pay transparency” initiative, which will require companies with staffs of 10 or more to produce reports on pay levels broken down by gender, and give workers the right to request to know the salaries of their colleagues. The measure could also include a ban on pay secrecy clauses in contracts, and a new requirement for employers to provide pay scales with job advertisements. This is all aimed at addressing the gender pay gap, which currently stands at 16% throughout the EU.

The pay transparency measure “is the tool that we are going to use in order to see where the discrepancies are,” Ms. Dalli said, arguing that the EU cannot address the gender pay gap without pay transparency. Today, the pensions of women in the EU are 36% less than men’s, due to pay inequality and because nearly 1 in 3 women in the EU work part time. To this end, the office is expected to push initiatives to create more affordable child care.

All of these measures will likely drive more nuanced discussions about how best to combine work and family, says Dr. Horst. “The number of women who have had burnouts is increasing, because they are taking care of parents and children.”

The commission’s new priorities are likely to prompt a debate about work-life balance, she adds. “What are the ways in which we can still be competitive, still have money to live,” but also have quality of life. “I see the debate shifting here.”

Preventing violence against women

Questions of economics have real effects on women’s safety too, since people who are financially reliant on their partners have a more difficult time leaving them. For this reason Ms. Dalli also pledged to pass the long-stalled Istanbul Convention on preventing violence against women, calling it one of the commission’s “main priorities.”

The convention would put in place “very practical” measures, including increasing the number of shelters for women fleeing domestic violence and mandatory counseling programs for perpetrators and children living in abusive households, says Manon Deshayes of the European Women’s Lobby in Brussels. Yet it has been consistently blocked by more conservative EU member states, and it will remain a tough slog to get it passed, analysts say.

Some members of parliament are also pushing to address “emerging forms of violence against women,” including digital trolling in which women are threatened with, say, rape and death for posting their opinions online.

As it puts these measures in place, the commission will also enact “instruments and indicators to see how we proceed,” Ms. Dalli said.

While this might sound like dry bureaucracy, when the EU promises to study something, it means business, says Fran Burwell, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council. “One thing the commission does really well is benchmarking. They set up criteria and assess how you’ve done. It starts out friendly – then they start naming and shaming.”

This all helps to create a “virtuous cycle” that could jump-start progress on women’s rights measures that have been stalled for a decade, says Ms. Deshayes.

“Until we had a political strategy on equality between men and women, we didn’t have a clear commitment on this.” As the commission’s programs are enacted, “We have this virtuous cycle that begins to take place,” too, as younger EU citizens see more women in politics and become more motivated to join in themselves, Ms. Deshayes adds. “And things change.”

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