Path to gender equality remains hindered

Female empowerment: Big steps for Belgium, small steps for women

© Nehal El-Sherif


Wearing a black suit, a white casual t-shirt and a colourful watch on her left wrist, Christ’l Joris conveys an image of practicality, firmness and flexibility. The Belgian businesswoman has been a board member of several organizations over the past decades – a time she feels has slowly paved the way for other women to take top posts in Belgium’s business world.

“Since there were not many women, you get visible very easily; and as I was taught always to speak up and be active, I got all kinds of offers to get into committees and even boards of companies. I think there was a real consciousness that they had to open up and look for diversity,” she said.

At 20, she became a member of the board of the family business, ETAP Lighting, and since she turned 40 she has been the president. Besides leading other agencies, Joris has also been active in social work.

Born in Antwerp in 1954, Joris now feels things have changed. “I am certain that things changed. I think there is much more consciousness that there are women and that you should look for them and offer them the positions,” said Joris.

Now when she is offered a new position, she declines.

“I have reached a point — already several years back — where I say I don’t want to do it anymore, there are younger women, go look for the other ones,” she said.

Belgium passed the Quota law in 2011 to prevent stock-listed companies from having more than two-third of the board members from the same sex. Last year, Belgium’s Institute for the Equality of Women and Men said the proportion of women on the boards reached 26.8% in 2017, compared to 8.2% in 2008. Yet, it highlighted that women still struggle to reach the highest position in the company.

Joris is a successful example, who had a supporting environment throughout her career path. But it is not the same for other women, who face obstacles in the labour market from a gender pay gap to a persistent cultural gender bias.

Constitution-guaranteed equality

In 2002, the Belgian constitution was amended to include: “Equality between women and men is guaranteed” – to ensure parity between the two genders.

In 2007, a law ensuring “gender mainstreaming” in all federal policies was passed, to fight discrimination and ensure integration of the gender perspective into draft laws and regulations. There is also a “gender budgeting” aspect, which aims at allocating amounts for promoting gender equality such as awareness-raising sessions or trainings.

Gender quotas targeting elected political office were first applied in European and local elections in 1994. New measures were adopted in 2002 forcing parties to list an equal number of female and male candidates on their lists.

‘This is the situation on paper. In reality, we see that gender equality is not the core business of the state, and there are a lot of informal rules making things less rosy, less of a feminist paradise.’

Right now, more than 40 percent of lawmakers in parliament are women. However, this has not been translated on the level of the federal government where currently there are only three female ministers. Though, there is hope this will change in the upcoming elections in May.

When asked if all these laws make Belgium a feminist state, Karen Celis, research professor at the department of political science at the VUB University in Brussels, finds it is not a black or white situation.

“Formally speaking, definitely yes, because we have the laws in place… So, in that sense we can call the state apparatus feminist, it is designed to produce gender equality,” she said.

“That said; this is the situation on paper. In reality, we see that gender equality is not the core business of the state, and there are a lot of informal rules making things less rosy, less of a feminist paradise,” added Celis.

Experts said the biggest challenge facing gender equality – especially in the labour force — is the gender bias, which leaves “motivated and capable” women invisible.

“Women, in any position of power, can make other women more visible, but it is even better if men do it, because it is the responsibility of the top of the organization to establish gender equality, fight discrimination, sexism and racism. Given that the top is still dominantly male, then, yes we need men to do it for us, because they are paid to do it; it is not help to those who are in a position of vulnerability or weakness,” she concluded.

Feminism is not a women’s thing

Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Development Cooperation and Finance, Alexander de Croo has been trying to play that role.

“More needs to be done in Belgium,” he said, although his country was recently hailed by a World Bank report as one of six countries worldwide that give women and men equal legal rights.

Yet, the Global Attitudes Toward Gender Equality study showed another side of the equation. Belgium fared well in survey questions like “I’d feel uncomfortable if my boss was a woman” and “a man who stays at home to look after his kids is less of a man” with at least two thirds of respondents refusing such statements.

Other areas had a less hopeful conclusion. Some 56% believed there are more advantages to being a man in the society.

The paternity leave and the gender pay gap are two topics that are high on the agenda of women’s organizations.

One of the reasons behind this could be the maternity and paternity leaves, which De Croo has discussed in his book “The Age of Women: Why Feminism also liberates men,” published last year, where he looks at several aspects of gender inequality in the workforce.

The paternity leave and the gender pay gap are two topics that are high on the agenda of women’s organizations. Right now, women get between 12 and 15 weeks of maternity leaves, while the father gets 10 days.

“We have made progress on maternal and paternal leave. I still think the aim, it should be exactly the same [for both the mother and father], but we are taking steps forward,” De Croo said, though he still finds that the 10 days for the father “is a joke as we are saying as a government that getting kids is the mothers’ role.”

He believes it could be increased to four weeks. Sharing the whole leave between the two parents is also a possibility that “would have an influence on the cultural side,” he said.

Another suggestion by Femma organization is to extend the paternity leave to 20 days and make it obligatory, which they hope would focus on the importance of both parents being involved in childcare.

Belgium has launched many international initiatives to support gender equality in partner countries. One of these initiatives is SheDecides, which focuses on family planning and has helped millions of women throughout the world.

He admits that his work in development has fueled his thinking on gender equality, prompting him to promote equal opportunities in the workforce in a stronger way.

“My conclusion is that it is not a matter of time; it is a matter of policy and a matter of us – men. We need to make much more effort to get men involved in this discussion because up to now only women talk about feminism and this means the solutions are coming only from women, which is wrong. The solutions will come from men and from women,” said De Croo.

© Ministry of Development Cooperation

Nehal El-Sherif poses with Alexander De Croo, Belgian Minister of Development Cooperation

Civil society mobilization

In a 2017 report on the 2030 United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, Belgium boasted its “solid legal and policy framework” for combating gender-based discrimination, which it said has been reflected in the decreasing gender pay gap over the years.

Yet, the government also admitted that more work remains to be done to combat the continuation of traditional gender roles, “which leads women to spend 8.5 hours a week more than men on non-paid occupations such as taking care of the household and children.”

“The structure of our society is still patriarchal. The burden of care still mostly rests with women and the care work is not valued, that’s why we have a pay gap and a pension gap.”

“It is a lot of talking, and just a bit of walking. That is my impression, a lot of keeping up appearances. May be we are making a bit of progress, but only a little,” said Maggi Poppe, a staff member at “Vrouwenraad”, the Dutch speaking Women’s Council, commenting on the country’s achievements regarding the SDGs.

One of the obstacles, Poppe finds, is a social aspect. “The structure of our society is still patriarchal. The burden of care still mostly rests with women and the care work is not valued, that’s why we have a pay gap and a pension gap,” she said.

One of the organizations focusing on raising awareness on the pay gap is Zij-Kant. The group started Equal Pay Day in Belgium in 2005 to stir discussions on the topic, said general secretary of zij-kant Vera Claes.

“This year we focused on the fact that so many women work part time. In Belgium 45% of all women in the labour market work part time while only 11% of men work part-time, that’s a big difference,” she said.

The solution is sharing both the household and the paid work.

“We prefer to have women and men work four days a week for example instead of the man working full time and his wife working half time,” she said

“We ask women to think, if you are not strong enough economically, if you don’t earn your own money think of what will happen later when you have your pension, it will be low too. So try to be independent as a woman. That’s in fact our main message,” Claes added.

Working less is not less work

A shorter work week has been on the agenda of women’s organizations for many years. Yet, this year, Femma decided to take matters into its own hand and implement it within the organization.

“Of course, it does not mean a man will automatically do more in the household or childcare, but we think if you implement this model that it might be beneficial for gender equality and to have a more qualitative combination between paid and unpaid labour,” said Jeroen Lievens, policy officer at Femma.

Lievens said during the evolution from the Breadwinner model – which led men in the emerging middle class after WWII to be the sole earners in the family – to the second wave feminism in the 1980s, the efforts were to get women into the labour market but little focus was given to dividing household work.

Researchers from VUB University and ‘Kind & Samenleving’ (Child & Society) institute are looking at time use management by Femma employees before and during the experiment, as well as how the children experienced the shorter working week of their parents.

Lievens is working four days a week; some of his colleagues are working 6 hours for five days.

“It is not always easy, it is a transition, but I can see the benefits of it. You organize your work in a different way, a more effective way,” he said.

“On a personal level, I can see myself being more relaxed; taking more time also for certain hobbies and I have a 7-year-old son,” he said, adding that the extra time off allows him to do some household chores and spend time helping his son with his homework or playing games.

Out of spotlight, out of mind

Yet, a sector of society remains out of the spotlight.

Women with migrant backgrounds are not only “neglected or damaged by current policies” but they are also marginalized within the women’s movement and the male-dominated anti-racism scene in Belgium, said Sarah Scheepers, a coordinator at Ella organization, which focuses on the situation of migrant women.

“We have a labour market that nearly spits migrant women out; so their agenda is not the pay gap, they don’t get any pay.”

“The biggest challenge is that they are not in the workforce,” said Scheepers, speaking in Antwerp.

“We have a labour market that nearly spits them out; so their agenda is not the pay gap, they don’t get any pay,” she said, “Or they do the lowest paid work, the most invisible care work or the labour conditions are so bad.”

“We notice the discourse and the imagery that concerns these women; how it is argued that they do not want to work because of religious background and stereotypical gender roles,” she added.

“But if you talk to them, many have worked below their educational level and they faced racism, discrimination and sexism on daily basis,” added Scheepers.

Among the women from a migrant background, there is a smaller sector: documented and undocumented migrant domestic and care workers, who sometimes face harsh working conditions.

Migrant care workers can go to Eva Maria Jemenez Lamas, an official with the trade union, when they want to file a complaint if they were mistreated, worked extra hours, got low salaries or had their passport taken away by their employer.

“I have met a lot of women and for them the worst thing was not a low salary but it was not being free to go out or meet other people. They are prisoners, they are the new modern slaves,” Lamas said.

She helps them to file a complaint, but the procedures take a long time, and the union wants them to be protected and be able to earn a living during the procedures.

“We are demanding they are protected with a residence and a work permit otherwise they will not file a complaint,” she said.

It’s also a different struggle for non-regulated sectors.

“There are no guidelines,” said music industry entrepreneur Eline Van Audenaerde.

“Not only because the industry is not regulated properly, but I think it is also because there is a mentality of repression. We learn since we are children that there are certain gender roles and I feel this is one of the reasons women get less opportunities,” she added, arguing that it is not just about a pay gap, but also about women’s confidence in their skills and how they project it..

Van Audenaerde launched her coaching business, The Unicorn Mothership, during which she finds big differences between men and women in the music business, as females prolong their own process of development “and constantly think they are not good enough.”

She is also the community director of SheSaid.So in Belgium, a network for women in the industry. It organizes networking events so that professionals and students can seek advice and support among themselves. It is now working on gathering data about the Belgian music scene, including how many people are working and how it looks like in terms of diversity.

The research is still on going, but they already can see that there aren’t enough women on lineups on Belgian festivals, said the 34-year-old.

“If you talk to festival organizers, a lot of them will say ‘there isn’t a lot of supply’, but there is,” Van Audenaerde said. “When we talk about this in Belgium, people sort of shrug it off, they don’t think it’s important, that’s what I see.

Providing coaching and support to other women came after spending years feeling “like my voice did not matter, my ideas were not good enough,” she said, hoping that women “stop thinking it is their fault.”

“I hope women get more opportunities. So, go out there, explore, travel, change your perspective, then come back and help solve a pain that you want to solve in the world,” she added.

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