PARIS (WOMENSENEWS)--When Michelle Detaille, managing director of Luxemburg-based industrial packaging firm No-Nail Boxes, attends professional meetings with her colleague, she is used to people assuming he's the boss.
"People walk up to him first. I have to explain it's actually me who owns the company!"
Detaille is used to being the odd one out.
She was the youngest member of parliament in Belgium when she started her career over 20 years ago, and one of few women in politics in Europe at the time. But while she says much has changed since she was a young politician surrounded by colleagues who could have been her father, statistics show women holding top-level jobs remain few and far between.
Today, two thirds of the European Union's managers are still men, and only 8 percent of women in Europe's top-200 companies occupy boardroom seats.
Overall employment trends aren't much better.
While women make up over half of the area's total population, only 55 percent of them are working for pay outside the home compared to 65 percent in the United States. Men, on average, earn 16 percent more than women.
These are gloomy figures for gender equality, but for European economics, they are critical.
Worker Shortage Looms
European citizens are living longer and fertility rates are dropping. If its population keeps falling, the European Union will lack over 20 million workers by 2030, warned a demographics report released this month by the European Commission. Unless new workers are recruited, Europe's economic growth rate--now forecast at 1.6 percent--could slow to 1 percent a year.
Bringing more women into the labor market--and that includes having more women at decision-making levels and narrowing the gender pay gap--is crucial to reversing the trend.
"Women must be full-time partners of the labor market," Nicole Ameline, France's minister for equal opportunities told Women's eNews at a press conference last week. "In this demographic context, if nothing is done we will reach a critical situation regarding the renewal of human resources."
European leaders tried to do something five years ago when they met at a summit in Lisbon and pledged to turn Europe into the world's most competitive economy by 2010.
A major goal then was to raise women's employment rates to 60 percent. Ways to reach this target included improving child care facilities throughout the union; boosting women's participation in scientific professions, traditionally male bastions; taking into account gender equality in all union policies and actions and encouraging national governments to make use of European funds to help smooth out gender inequalities.
Five years on, the results are disappointing. As the "Lisbon agenda" meets its mid-term review this month, women's employment has not reached the interim target of 57 percent and economic growth in Europe is sluggish.
Gender Institute Created
Alarmed by the failure to achieve its goals, the union chose March 8, International Women's Day, to announce that it was creating a think tank for European governments and institutes on the problems of gender equality. The gender institute is scheduled to open in 2007. Likely host countries include the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia.
"There is a need for getting data which is comparative to see where the problems lie," said Katharine von Schnurbein, spokesperson for the European ministry for employment and social affairs. "We really need to do something to get more women into the labor market at all levels.We need to take a broad approach."
While anti-discrimination laws exist in all EU countries, the framework for facilitating better work access varies significantly throughout Europe.
In France and Scandinavia, child care is subsidized by the government. But in Spain, Italy and Germany, where most child care facilities are privately run, only 10 percent are provided by the state. With German schools closing at noon, finding a way to combine a career with looking after a young child can be problematic.
Cultural differences also affect the extent of women's participation in the labor market. In Scandinavian countries, women's employment reaches over 70 percent. Women are highly represented in politics, holding over 45 percent of parliamentary seats in Sweden and 38 percent in Denmark.
The southern Catholic countries are very different. In Italy, for example, women in parliament represent only 11.5 percent of the total. Under half of the women in Greece and Italy work for pay outside the home.
Earlier this month, the EU Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner Vladimir Spidla suggested fundamental changes in European society were necessary to bridge these gaps.
"Politics alone cannot solve the problem," said Spidla in a statement after the release of the report on demographic change. "They have to go hand in hand with a picture in society that does not stamp out women who re-enter the labor market after maternity leave as bad mothers and men that take care of children as softies."
There are signs that European attitudes are changing.
Female employment rates are rising slowly, nudging up from 54 percent of the female population to 55 percent over the last five years.
More and more women are pursuing higher education, entering politics and holding top-level jobs. The latest available European-wide statistics show the portion of female workers who hold managerial positions had increased by 1 percentage point between 2002 and 2003, to 31 percent.
There is also some evidence that men are tentatively but increasingly sharing domestic tasks, including child care.
Michele Detaille, who is in charge of 50 employees, said she is increasingly shifting the timetables of young fathers so that they can look after their young children.
"Looking after a family can be a constraint, but this task is being increasingly shared between the parents. Things are evolving slowly but surely."
And with the economic imperatives of having to get more women to work, gender equality has become a priority of the EU's employment policies and social agenda.
"Five years ago, I wasn't convinced there was overall gender equality commitment at the EU level," said Mary McPhail, secretary general of the European Women's Lobby. "Now I have slightly shifted my position in that you see anti-discrimination laws throughout Europe. You could say this was economically driven but it's not quite fair. There has been a gradual shift of mentalities in the past 5 to 10 years."
Emilie Boyer King is a French-British freelance journalist based in Paris. She covers general news and features for major English-language dailies around the world.
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European Union Tells Members to Bar Sex Harassment:
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