“The first President of the European Parliament was a woman – and a liberal at that, but unfortunately, there is only one other woman among her successors. Half of Europe’s population are women, but politics don’t reflect that: the majority of MEPs, MPs are men, which just comes to show that we have a long way to go yet in achieving gender equality. The role of ALDE Party’s Gender Equality Network is just that: to attract more women to become active members of liberal parties across Europe,” Sir Graham Watson MEP said, launching the ALDE Gender Equality Network (ALDE GEN).
The ALDE Gender Equality Network (ALDE GEN) will campaign for gender equality and the promotion of women’s rights. The goal is to ensure the full participation of women in economic, social and political life. It supports the participation of women in the public sphere of the European Union and campaigns for the implementation of gender equality policies within ALDE member parties and on the European level.
In her introductory remarks Flo Clucas OBE, President of the ALDE GEN recalled the sacrifice of British suffragettes, such as Emily Wilding Davison who was trampled to death by a horse when she protested at the Epsom Derby. “While women today in Europe make up 67% of graduates and 27% of entrepreneurs, they are paid on average 17,6% less than their male colleagues, are denied educational opportunities and exploited,” Clucas said. “It is high time that we remind ourselves that women and men deserve social, economic, financial and educational equality – not only on paper.”
Virginija Langbakk, Director of the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), confirmed this. “It is not about equal rights – on paper men and women are equal – it’s about the “soft issues” and here it is especially important to involve men,” she said during her keynote speech. What prevents women from entering top level positions, Ellen Madeker, Chairwoman of the Brussels-based group of the German liberal party (FDP), asserts, is a lack of female role models. “Role models are very important because they have considerable influence in shaping career paths. They can boost our self-confidence. At university, I had mostly male professors, so far only male bosses and at work I’ve made the experience that the more high-ranking delegations from anywhere in the world are, the more exclusively male they are – and the older the members, the more likely it is to be mistaken for the secretary,” she recalls.
Isabella Lenarduzzi had been working as a social entrepreneur in Belgium for a while, when she realized she was the only woman owning her own event company and decided to motivate women to take the risk of becoming an entrepreneur. In 2006 she founded JUMP with the goal to “empowering women, advancing the economy” – in bold white letters on bright pink. She was inspired by the “pink loan” initiative of Italian banks, which was meant to be an incubator for female entrepreneurism. “Pink is a statement. I don’t want to be or act like a man. The key to success for a woman is to remain herself. It is a myth that femininity has no place in leadership,” she insists.
Addressing the panel, moderator Sylvia Schreiber, EU Correspondent, recalled an advertisement from the 50s, featuring a woman smoking a cigarette. The text of the ad read “You’ve come a long way, baby”. “In the 50s only 20% of women worked outside the home – and for a large part in so-called “female occupations” and they earned 59 cents for every dollar that their male colleagues did as compared to 70 cents for every dollar in 2000. So you could say that progress has been made,” Schreiber posed. The progress in the 60s and 70s was steep, but has become a flat curve since the 90s; the debate about gender equality has been silenced until it has become a “non-issue”, Olle Schmidt MEP lamented. Showing pictures of the ECB executive board, governing council and general council, he pointed out “there you have the EU body with currently the greatest influence. Thirty men and not a single woman. When I raised the question at the ECB, I was told ‘you only have one question, do you really want to waste it on this?’ ” Schmidt retells his fight for his right to paternity leave back in the day and wants to see more female speakers at conferences across Brussels, especially where they are underrepresented. “The discussion we are having today in the EU is one that we were having in Sweden in the 70s.”
More bad news comes from the Brussels city council, where, according to former mayor Marion Lesmere, there is a non-written agreement that the coalition party with the least votes has to supply the “quota woman”. This practice contradicts the purpose for which gender quotas are being designed, and challenges what benefit a pan-European gender quota will bring. Sean O’Curneen commented that “as a liberal, I reject quotas, but as a liberal, I also support equality of opportunities and I think the quota will achieve this.”
Another key question came from a member of the audience: Men had always had their Clubs. Should we as women open our own clubs, or infiltrate the male clubs? Lenarduzzi replied that networks for women are the first step; women need other women to feel confident and comfortable to “stand their woman” in mixed company. For far too long, women in power positions have felt isolated, perhaps even because of quotas, according to personal experience of audience member Ann Brussels, Member of the Flemish Parliament. These women have consequently adopted a negative, competitive or even hostile behavior towards other women, referred to as the “queen-bee syndrome”. For what has been common practice among successful men – taking a young protégée under their wing – women have been hesitant to support other women, hesitant to be cast as “the feminist”. “We need to keep in mind the wise words, Madeline Albright once famously said: there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other, which is why one of ALDE GEN’s main objectives is to launch a mentoring programme that will connect young professional women with a mentor who has experience and connections in her field,” Flo Clucas concluded the debate.
Pictures of the event can be found here.