How gender equality counts

This week I went to Vilnius, to take part in the European Institute for Gender Equality’s (EIGE) 6th Working Group on its Gender Equality Index. It was both a very interesting and thought-challenging meeting.

The index was launched in 2013, with the aim to measure gender equality throughout the EU and in individual Member States, and support the evaluation and monitoring of measures and policies. The index looks at individual outcome variables, and uses data that is reliable, comparable over time and harmonised at EU level; from Eurofound, Eurostat, Eurobarometer, the European Commission, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, the United Nations and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It covers work, money, power, health, knowledge and time, in addition to violence against women and intersecting inequalities.

An overall challenge faced by EIGI is that data is not available for all areas. For example we lack comparable gender-sensitive indicators on poverty and ways to look at gender and sexual orientation as such data does not exist for all Member States. At the same time, the index includes vast information about gender inequality in Europe and yet we see little improvement, which leads to me to question how we can communicate about issues that are not new, but still important. One idea that was suggested in the Working Group was to rank Member States on the basis of how much they advanced recent years, instead of their overall performance compared to other countries. In this way countries like Malta and Italy might perform much better than, for example, Sweden and Finland.

EIGE is currently developing its data about social power, adding it to economic and political power. Social power is about access to decision-making in institutions that have a particular influence on social norms, attitudes and values in the society. EIGE will add data about women and men on boards of publicly owned broadcasting organisations and national Olympic Sports organisations. So far it has been tricky to find the right indicators for judiciary, culture or civil society. Social partners might be added to economic power. The domain of power raised interesting questions about whether we count the same women (or men) more than once, as the elite are often composed by few people holding several positions at the same time. If we could capture this it would illustrate the concentration of decision-making. An aspect of calculating women represented in boards is that we miss out on women’s access to power in other and less ‘powerful’ areas of life.

Intersectionality is about the unique experience of different inequalities intersecting with each other due to, for example, gender, disability, age or sexual orientation. EIGE is currently figuring out which intersections would be most interesting to look at more closely in its index. Among other topics, participants talked about the importance of taking a lifecycle approach. Without the right indicators we may easily misunderstand data, for example ‘couples without children’ can mean a young couple or an elderly couple whose children moved out; without ‘age’ we won’t be able to understand the difference. As a novelty is that EIGE is considering using the European Quality of Life Survey by Eurofound to include also data about non-workers, care of elderly and disabled. Intersectionality can also help us to understand when and where migrants are in the most vulnerable situations, in order to make the best policy priorities.

A complex but interesting last discussion we had was about the index’s overall score of Member States’ performance. Even if the status quo is maintained in one Member State its score might drop because another Member State performs well and raises its score; should the highest performing countries be given the right to set the benchmark for the others, and if not should there be a European standard for gender equality? If not, how should the scores be fairly corrected?

EIGE’s 7th Working Group will be dedicated to further development of the health domain, including how it intersects with other grounds of discrimination and domains.