“If you are not around the table, you are on the menu”

“Ladies, if you are not around the table, you are on the menu,” said Madi Sharma, social entrepreneur and member of the European Economic and Social Committee at the Fundamental Rights Colloquium held on 20-21 November. This year’s theme was gender equality in the European Union; having an influential political leader such as European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans putting such a political issue on the agenda that is otherwise predominantly raised by women makes a difference. Mr Timmermans has on several occasions positioned himself as a feminist and a middle-aged white man that acknowledges his own privileges. Regardless of whether he fully walks the talk or not, he is one of the very few men in the EU political elite that would take such a stand.

While the two-day meeting gathered many interesting and prominent feminist scholars, professionals and activists, I kept on asking myself: to whom are we are speaking? Most interventions were designed to argue convincingly for the case of investing more in gender equality. Yet, the audience consisted exclusively of participants that are already ‘converted’, so to speak. “We know enough, and yet we must meet together to discuss that women too have rights,” said Kate Gilmore, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights. Expecting that we reach outside our own like-minded ‘peer-group’ through web streaming and social media is rather presumptuous of us. The question therefore remains how the outcomes of the conversations and networking during the Colloquium will be followed-up by Mr Timmermans.

With that said, there were some very interesting interventions highlighting worrying trends, such as to further restrict women’s sexual and reproductive rights in Poland. Several speakers, including our members European Network Against Racism and AGE Platform Europe raised the importance of addressing intersectionality, especially when it comes to age, ethnic and religious minorities, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity. One speaker illustrated for example that Muslim women with a headscarf, often born and raised in Germany, have to apply for 4.5 times more jobs to receive the same amount of call backs as other.

Salam Anderlini, co-founder of the International Civil Society Action Network working on the global level, gave an inspiring speech reminding participants that the EU in itself is an extraordinary achievement of peace that we cannot take for granted. Extreme-right gender-based violence is carried out deliberately both by state and non-state actors. We shouldn’t just identify the victims under the #MeToo hashtag, but should also focus on naming the perpetrators #HeToo and #HerToo. Michael O’Flaherty, Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights said, “I am collectively embarrassed for how little we have done in 22 years,” since the the UN’s 1995 agreement on the ‘Beijing Declaration’ to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.

On the same day as the Colloquium, the European Commission published its Action Plan to tackle the gender pay gap. Pay transparency has been the biggest change-maker in the United Kingdom, explained one of the speakers; in Germany the pay gap is 21 percent and bigger companies are required to disclose the average salary for employees to know if they are paid fairly. The issue may be structural and should not be the responsibility of women themselves to fix, but at the same time one cannot deny the fact raised by BusinessEurope that women differ from men by rarely talking about or ask for a higher salary or promotion as they fear that they underperform. Another side of the coin is the issue of migrant women filling caring roles of caring for others children and household, to allow non-migrant women to access the labour market and pursue equal work.

For more information on this topic please read my blog post about the launch of the Gender Equality Index.