A snapshot of gender equality in European workplaces

Over a year has passed since the Harvey Weinstein scandal brought global attention to the issue of gender power dynamics in the workplace. The subsequent #MeToo movement continues to shine a spotlight on the everyday problems that women face, especially when simply trying to do their jobs.


These developments placed further focus on what was already a key priority for many employers in recent years – gender equality. In March, we reported on how major organisations are striving to achieve better diversity in the UK, but what about the wider picture in Europe?


Are businesses on the continent delivering equal opportunities in the workplace for men and women? The answer to this question is multifaceted, so let’s examine some of the latest research to see how much progress has been made.

Positive change is occurring (albeit slowly)

Last year, the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) said European countries are moving forward, but at a snail’s pace. The organisation publishes an annual Gender Equality Index, which measures a range of factors, including employment, health, power and money.


The 2017 edition calculated a score of 66.2 out of 100. Unfortunately, this was only four points higher than a decade ago, although the employment indicator was slightly higher at 71.5.


According to EIGE, women are disproportionately affected by limited work-life balance choices, with disabled individuals and those with low qualifications feeling the biggest impact.


“We are still a long way off from reaching a gender equal society, and all countries in the EU have room to improve. In some areas, the gaps are even bigger than 10 years ago,” said EIGE Director Virginija Langbakk.

Countries divided in progress

While gender equality progress appears slow, there are significant disparities between nations, with some doing better than others. For example, European Commission (EC) data shows 44 per cent of people across the continent believe the most important role for a woman is to take care of the home and her family.


However, this figure drops dramatically to just 11 per cent in Sweden, which is widely considered one of Europe’s most egalitarian nations. Meanwhile, 81 per cent of Bulgarians believe women should prioritise housekeeping and raising children. These attitudes obviously have a significant impact on gender equality in the workplace.


Across the EU, women also earn 16 per cent less per hour, on average, than men, according to the EC. Again, there is substantial differences between countries, with Romania having the lowest wage gap (5.2 per cent) and Estonia’s exceeding 25 per cent.


Approximately two-thirds of this wage gap is ‘unexplained’. This means the disparity can’t be accounted for even after taking into consideration differences in age, education, occupation, job tenure and a range of other factors. The EC claims the unexplained gap is likely due to discrimination, career progression hurdles and limited opportunities in certain sectors.

How is the EC attempting to achieve gender equality?

The EC is taking a number of steps in an attempt to improve gender equality across Europe. These include:

  • The ‘New Start’ Initiative: This aims to modernise the EU’s existing flexible working and family-related leave arrangements. From a legislative perspective, paternity and carers’ leave would be introduced, while parental leave entitlements will be strengthened.
  • EU Action Plan 2017-19: This framework was formulated to reduce the gender pay gap via eight drivers of change. Areas of focus include greater transparency over salaries, combating the glass ceiling and encouraging more women into gender-segregated occupations.
  • Setting a good example: The EC is dedicated to meeting a target by which 40 per cent of its own middle management and senior leaders are women before the end of the current mandate in 2019. Women currently account for 37 per cent of management positions at all levels in the organisation.

Our own analysis of the European corporate governance recruitment market has shown employers are increasingly keen to improve diversity within their businesses, particularly with regards to gender equality.

Looking to the future

The research shows that gender equality across Europe is improving, although the slow pace of change may be frustrating for many. The good news is the EC is enforcing various initiatives and legislative updates in order to kickstart diversity awareness and develop better frameworks for change.


Many European countries are among the most gender equal in the world, but there is always room for improvement. Scandinavian countries are currently leading the charge, although some nations in central and eastern Europe are lagging behind.


Given that UK employers are currently suffering a confidence crisis with Brexit on the horizon, a growing number of employees may be considering their options outside Britain. Our research shows that approximately 50 per cent of corporate governance professionals would consider moving overseas if separating from the EU harmed their career progression.

With the EC legislating for better work-life balances, greater gender equality and a range of other socially progressive policies, is now the time to consider European job opportunities? If you’d like to discuss your options, please contact me on 020 7936 2601 or via email at bcf@barclaysimpson.com.