Improving gender equality through cohesion policy

Gender equality and Cohesion policy
21 March 2022
Improving gender equality through cohesion policy

It’s written in black and white in the Treaty of the European Union: gender equality is one of the European Union’s fundamental values. But let’s face it: effective equality is far from being a reality. Discrimination against women pervades all cultures and communities, as well as all levels and areas throughout life. It is thus important to address gender inequalities in a systematic and comprehensive way, in order to achieve real gender equality – and cohesion policy can help with this.

According to the Gender Equality Index 2020, the score for gender equality in the EU stands at 67.9 out of 100. To reach the 100 mark of total equality, it is estimated that it will take us at least sixty years at the current rate of progress. We are talking about more than half the population in the EU, still struggling to be treated equally. As Helena Dalli, European Commissioner for Equality, stated in this article, we must speed up the process of gender equality and this cannot wait a single day”. 

Women are disproportionately affected by the pandemic

Gender inequality at work is nothing new. But as women are twice as likely to lose their jobs due to the economic consequences of the pandemic, we need to act now. Studies on the effects of the COVID-19 crisis carried out for the European Commission indicate that women are disproportionately affected in economic terms. The Resolution recently adopted by the European Parliament on the gender dimension of cohesion policy recognises that “the pandemic has exacerbated existing structural gender inequalities, and has argued in favour of using gender mainstreaming and gender budgeting in the COVID-19 recovery response, as well as applying lessons learned about the detrimental effects of previous economic crises on gender equality”.  

It goes without saying that gender equality is a powerful driver for social and economic development and benefits not only women but society as a whole. So we must act now to ensure that Covid-19 doesn’t reverse progress in gender equality made over the last decades.

Gender mainstreaming as a tool for better policy-making 

Promoting equality between women and men must be at the heart of everything we do. VWhen new EU policies are presented, nobody checks what their impact might be for the different genders. Gender impact assessments and other new strategies are therefore needed to design policies and legislation that address the needs of both women and men and take relevant gender differences into account at all stages of the policy-making process. 

According to many experts, one of the strategies to reduce gender inequality is gender mainstreaming, which means actively promoting equality between women and men at all stages and in all areas of policy-making and implementation. 

Gender mainstreaming does not only aim to avoid the creation or reinforcement of inequalities, which can have adverse effects on both women and men. It also implies analysing the existing situation, with the purpose of identifying inequalities, and developing policies which aim to redress these inequalities and undo the mechanisms that caused them. This tool is key to make sure public interventions are more effective and ensure that inequalities are not perpetuated.

The current gender-sensitive approach to all EU policies is lacking concrete methodologies and tools

The mainstreaming of the gender perspective in all EU policy areas is a long-standing battle of the progressive family. The European Committee of the Regions already took a strong stance on the matter thanks to the work of our Vice-President and President of the Spanish region of La Rioja, Concha Andreu, who put forward an opinion on the Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 which calls on the need to adopt a gender-sensitive approach to all EU policies.

Unfortunately, the Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 presented by the European Commission does not include any specific measures for mainstreaming gender equality into all EU policy areas. The use of effective indicators to measure and assess the gender impact of implementing the strategies has to be increased. 

A lot of efforts have been recently  made to achieve the objectives of the European Pillar of Social Rights in the 2021-2027 Cohesion Policy legislative and programming framework, with particular regard to the enabling conditions and tracking system in spending programmes relating to specific objectives. 

However, there is the need to put  appropriate training measures in place to help managing authorities implement these new methodologies better. Local and regional authorities have a key role to play in this as they can finally influence, by the set-up of the operational programmes, the direction EU funds take on the ground and the impact they have on the different gender.

How can the cohesion policy strengthen gender equality in the EU?

Cohesion policy will always be connected with equality and equal access - the gender dimension is a cornerstone for this policy. Its implementation cannot risk endangering women. Josianne Cutajar, the S&D spokesperson on the file, said: The enhancement of women’s well-being, the elimination of gender-based violence, and a better work-life balance, are all goals that must be embedded within the cohesion policy.”

The EU has a budget of 392 billion to spend until 2027 for cohesion policy. This represents an investment in national and regional programmes, including those to drive growth, jobs, social integration and better cooperation. Therefore, the economic and social impact in regions and cities is enormous and it’s of paramount importance that cohesion policy include a gender dimension to its assessment and monitoring. Local and regional authorities can play a key role in this.

Cohesion Policy and EU-related programmes should be subject to a gender-impact assessment

The start of the new cohesion policy programme from 2021 to 2027 offers the opportunity to shape operational programmes in a way that gender mainstreaming is given a prominent place. EU structural and cohesion policy instruments offer the possibility to take into account the gender dimension when putting forward operational programmes and concrete projects. Local and regional authorities have to fulfil their obligation of promoting equality between men and women and should ensure that the proposed operational programmes and EU funded projects respect this on paper and in practice.

In 2021, the European Parliament has also adopted the report of the Committee on regional development on the gender dimension in Cohesion Policy. The S&D Group in the European Parliament underlined the importance of respecting EU values and fundamental rights when benefiting from EU money. Cases of discrimination cannot be left without serious financial consequences for those who apply them. “Whenever a beneficiary of the EU cohesion policy funds adopts a discriminatory policy, the EU funding should be interrupted. We must strengthen the link between EU money and EU principles. The Union is not a cash dispenser, but a community of values, let’s not forget that”, stressed the S&D Group president, Iratxe García Pérez.

Local and regional leaders are at the forefront of the implementation of EU programmes funded by cohesion policy, which make them key actors for the gender-impact assessment, but they need better tools. 

In the Committee of the Regions, the opinion on “The gender dimension of structural and cohesion funds 2021-2027", with a focus on the preparation of the operational programmes” initiated by our PES member Donatella Porzi, regional Councillor for the Region of Umbria in Italy, calls on the Commission to propose a methodology for assessing the gender impact of programmes funded by the European Union and making gender-specific data and indicators available. 

Tools such as gender impact assessment and gender budgeting need to be incorporated more widely into European funding programmes, as they are currently still too rarely used. In her opinion, Porzi makes a series of concrete requests for implementing EU programmes for 2021-2027 with a gender perspective:  

  • Encourage the reintegration of women who have lost their jobs because of COVID-19;
  • Improve care services so as to lighten the burden on women;
  • Implement specific, targeted measures to encourage women's participation in traditionally male-dominated spheres of activity;
  • Counter gender stereotyping and gender roles and prevent discrimination and sexual and gender-based harassment in workplaces; 
  • Provide the beneficiaries of European funds with useful support and guidelines to better integrate the gender perspective into the different areas of intervention, from employment policies to research and development, from environmental protection to public transport and digital technologies; 
  • Encourage women to become entrepreneurs;
  • Pay attention to the objective of increasing women’s safety when designing infrastructure; 
  • Promote measures to achieve co-education and eradicate stereotypes and roles in classrooms; 
  • Fight against the sexist image of women in the media.

We need to establish a range of methods, including gender statistics, analysis, impact assessment, budgeting, evaluation and audits within the frame of cohesion policy.

Progressive local and regional authorities lead the way

The EU must empower regions and cities to achieve this goal with the support and guidelines to better integrate the gender perspective into the different policy fields. This is the only way to build a more sustainable Europe leaving no one behind.      

Progressive local and regional authorities are already improving the implementation of the structural and cohesion policy with a gender responsive budgeting. The city of Munich is an inspiring example, where they began back in 2006 to look at how data on services can be linked to budget planning in a meaningful way. The local administration committed to making gender mainstreaming and gender budgeting an integral part of the process from the beginning. Training programmes underway focus on target group analysis, evaluation and interpretation of statistical data and survey results and on the construction of performance indicators. Munich, as many others, has made a clear statement: gender is to be addressed in all policy areas. 

Cohesion policy must do more to promote gender equality in Europe

We need to send a strong message to Europe: women cannot be left behind! Not when it comes to the design of the cohesion policy, nor in its implementation through operational programmes. The regional policy that we carry out must promote equality, inclusion, social justice and respect.

Equality will be just an idea until we translate it into reality with day by day actions. This is precisely what cohesion policy should be doing more by supporting women in many different areas, more than ever now as women are among the most affected by the negative economic and social impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Give women the opportunity to shine so our society will thrive.