Articleequal opportunities

Women in the crisis
the European report

The crisis impact has been different for women and men, both in terms of employment than in terms of austerity measures and consequent cuts to social services. The ENEGE report presents main outcomes and recommendations to transform the crisis in an opportunity, for all. 

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Following an extract from the introduction of the "The impact of economic crisis on the situation of women and men and on gender policies" 


Europe is experiencing a financial and economic crisis. This began with the ‘credit crunch’ in the financial services sector and evolved as a sovereign debt crisis. Fiscal consolidation and austerity measures have been deployed in response to the crisis to reduce public deficits and debt. This crisis is still unfolding so that the analysis and findings of this report must remain a work in progress.

This report aims to assess the impact of this crisis on the situation of women and men in Europe and on gender equality policies. This is important as economic crises are deeply gendered. Past experience cannot provide sufficient insight into the gender impact of this crisis as the position of women has changed considerably since the last major recession. This crisis offers opportunities for radical change, including a potential to advance equality for women and men. However, the crisis also poses challenges where gender equality may be seen as an issue only for the good times.

This report is a product of the EGGE and the EGGSI expert networks of the European Commission. It covers twenty seven Member States, the EEA-EFTA countries and three candidate countries: Turkey, Croatia and FYROM. The core reference period for analysis of the labour market impact is the (nearly) four years between the second quarter of 2008 - when the crisis technically started for the EU as a whole[1] - and the first quarter of 2012 - the latest quarter for which Eurostat data is available at the time of writing. Analysis of the social impact extends over the period between 2005 and 2010.

Four Main Conclusions

Four main conclusions can be drawn from this report. The first conclusion is that there has been a levelling down of gender gaps in employment, unemployment, wages and poverty over the crisis. This however does not reflect progress in gender equality as it is based on lower rates of employment, higher rates of unemployment and reduced earnings for both men and women.

In the first years of the crisis labour market segregation has effectively sheltered women’s employment, labour market activity and pay during the crisis to date. This segregation involves over-representation of women in service employment (including public sector jobs) and under-representation in manufacturing, construction and male dominated branches of the financial sector. The overall level of segregation in a country associates positively and significantly with the difference in employment losses for men and women. Men experienced comparatively higher employment losses than women in countries where this segregation is greater. Further, labour market segregation may eventually expose women to a greater extent where fiscal consolidation significantly curtails public sector jobs.

The second main conclusion of this report is that the labour market behaviour of women over the crisis has been similar to that of men. The traditional view that women behave as employment buffers, called in when demand expands but pushed back when it contracts has been challenged for previous crises, but has been definitely refuted by the experience of this crisis. The contemporary ‘buffers’ are young men and women on temporary employment contracts and migrant workers.

This similarity of behaviour starts with the changed income role of women. Dual earner couples lost ground in the downturn almost exclusively  to the advantage of female breadwinner couples that increased their share to almost 10%.

Similarity of behaviour is evident in that discouragement from seeking work affected men more than women, in percentage terms. There is further evidence in that no fewer women than men accepted part-time work ‘involuntarily’. The increase in the numbers of involuntary part-time workers was actually larger among women, although in percentage terms the surge was stronger among men.

The worsening of employment conditions affected women and men differently rather than ‘more’ or ‘less’. There is evidence of infringement and curtailment of rights over the crisis, but there is no clear indication whether men or women have been more affected. Men do report themselves as more affected by the crisis with more frequent complaints of heightened job insecurity, cuts in pay and having to accept less interesting work.

There are repercussions from the crisis that specifically concern women. The rights of pregnant women to maternity leave and benefits have been curtailed and discrimination against pregnant women has been documented in at least four countries.

There is limited evidence on developments in relation to unpaid work. However, in the depth of the first recessionary episode (2008-2009) household expenditure went down in most European countries for the consumption of items for which unpaid work may provide a good substitute.

The third main conclusion of this report is that, while there is evidence of contained but uneven retrenchment in welfare provisions in the first years of the crisis, there is a threat that fiscal consolidation may ultimately reduce both the welfare provisions being made and the related employment with associated gender equality impacts.

The crisis has slightly reduced the gender gaps in poverty in the first two years, albeit by increasing the risk of poverty among men more than among women. Without social transfers, the crisis would have produced larger increases in poverty rates in a large number of countries for both men and women. This redistribution has been important in reducing the gender gap in poverty rates.

Education and training appear to have been less affected by budget cuts until 2010. National strategies during the crisis have focused on extending pre-school and out of school programmes. Such schemes are advantageous not only for children but also for the caring parents and in particular for women. Vulnerable groups in the education and training domain include migrant women, the homeless and those at risk of early school leaving (among whom men are over-represented).

The housing crisis in some countries is seriously affecting the lives of the most vulnerable households, including single mothers and low-income households (among whom women are over-represented). Homelessness and long-term homelessness have increased during the crisis and this is a gendered phenomenon in several countries.

Men’s and women’s health status is reported to have deteriorated as a result of the crisis. Recent health reforms in several countries have focused on cost containment and new or higher prescription fees have been also introduced in several countries. Cost containment has a regressive effect since the cost of healthcare impinges proportionally more on people with lower incomes and this weighs more heavily on women. Budget cuts in the health sector also hit women harder than men on the supply side as more women are employed in the sector.

Some countries have boosted health and long-term care facilities but many others have raised fees or reduced health or care-related cash benefits as part of public expenditure cuts. In countries that underwent the most significant fiscal consolidation long-term care allowances and monetary benefits have been reduced and this has a disproportionate impact on women.

Fiscal consolidation poses a risk for gender equality. The consolidation measures likely to have the most impact on gender equality include wage freezes or wage cuts in the public sector; staffing freezes or personnel cuts in the public sector; pension reforms; cuts and restrictions in care related benefits/allowances/facilities; reduction of housing benefits or family benefits; tightening of eligibility criteria for unemployment and assistance benefits or reductions in replacement rates; tax measures; VAT increases; and increases in fees for publicly subsidized services.

The most recent evidence gathered at country level suggests that the specific impact of fiscal consolidation on gender equality varies considerably among countries. While in some countries the impact is modest and not consistently pro-inequality, in others considerable retrenchment in employment, social transfers and social services may be rolling back past progress. It cannot be ruled out that disparities in gender equality within Europe may widen back as an unintended consequence of fiscal consolidation. 

The fourth main conclusion of this report is that in the vast majority of countries gender mainstreaming has not been implemented in policy design and policy implementation over the crisis. Neither recovery nor consolidation measures have been assessed from a gender perspective in the vast majority of cases. Gender impact has been taken into account at all policy process stages in about one tenth of the policy initiatives announced or implemented in response to the crisis as part of the 2011 National Reform Programmes.

Fiscal consolidation packages have also impaired the functioning of the gender equality infrastructure in several Member States. A few countries have, however, taken steps to make the existing infrastructure more effective, and some Eastern European countries have introduced institutional innovations in the field of gender equality. (...)


Ten recommendations are made that seek to advance gender equality as a means of assisting the economy to emerge out of the crisis.

  1. Reconsider the formulation of gender equality indicators. The apparent improvement in most gender gaps despite the worsening of employment, wages, working and income conditions for both men and women raises questions as to whether ‘gender gaps’ adequately capture trends in gender equality in recessionary times.
  2. Encourage Member States to adopt effective gender budgeting systems for their main policy initiatives, including ongoing or future recovery plans and expenditure reviews. Statutory requirements that policies be vetted ex-ante from a gender perspective may not be sufficient, as the experience in Austria and the UK indicates.
  3. Closely monitor the risk that fiscal consolidation may significantly erode welfare provisions as well as equality infrastructure.
  4. Launch and support initiatives to raise the level of financial literacy among women (and the population at large) and to ensure a ‘critical mass’ female representation in key financial bodies of the European machinery. This crisis has made evident how far policy decisions that are traditionally associated with women such as welfare, schooling or reconciliation have come to depend on macroeconomic and financial decisions women have traditionally been excluded from and which they know little about. 
  5. Address the disproportionate burden of employment flexibility on young people. This includes re-designing customary counter-cyclical policies like short-time work schemes and unemployment benefit programmes. While both measures were important to counteract the worst employment and wage effects of this crisis, they are often primarily geared to regular full-time workers.
  6. Gender mainstream income support schemes. Social expenditure and tax expenditure should focus on women’s financial independence as a central concern, especially if they are aimed at lifting men and women out of poverty.
  7. Channel social expenditure so as to prioritize quality services over cash benefits in order to ensure a fair distributional impact of austerity programmes and alleviate the care burden for women. Channel recovery funds towards social and care infrastructure and not only physical infrastructure.
  8. Strengthen the European Social Fund and review procedures therein. Several low female employment countries in Southern and Eastern Europe are also countries where the recession and fiscal consolidation are downsizing welfare, reconciliation and generally equality enhancing provisions. The European Structural Fund represents an important resource in these countries to compensate for cuts in local provisions and to sustain the 2020 employment goal. In some cases, however, ESF spending may need to be reviewed in order to warrant full effectiveness. In particular this review should ensure that: (i) procedures for accessing and spending funds are simple; and (ii) key programmes being implemented continue to operate after ESF funds have been withdrawn.
  9. Increase surveillance and heighten public awareness of cases of violations of maternity and leave rights. Infringements of maternity/parental rights may be more frequent in small- and medium-sized firms because of higher organizational costs. Their specific needs/constraints should be addressed, as this is also a problem in ‘normal’ times.
  10. Address the issue of poor integration of mobile and migrant workers, especially men.

 Read the full report here

[1] See European Commission, 2010e: Table 1. A recessionary episode technically occurs when the GDP records quarter-on-quarter negative variations for two consecutive quarters.