Friday, June 17, 2016

Priorities for the future 4/5


Since the original Treaty of Rome, the EU’s commitment to gender equality has waxed and waned over the years, being stronger in periods of economic growth and labour shortage and withering away in periods of low growth, crisis and austerity (Smith and Villa, 2013). 

Perhaps the high point for gender equality policies was the decision in 2000 to enshrine gender mainstreaming in the Lisbon Treaty, which requires that policies and measures should “actively and openly take into account at the planning stage their possible effects on the respective situations of men and women” (EC, 1996). Subsequently, allegiance towards gender equality has weakened in both EU policies and practice, as analysis of recent EU policy documents shows. Attention to gender issues has become less effective than in previous decades, indicating that social policies remain subordinate to economic ones especially the SGP. 

This differential treatment rests on the neoliberal assumption that the economy and economic policies are wealth-creating or productive while social policies are costly and concerned with redistributing rather than creating wealth, and should therefore be side-lined while policy focuses on the urgent task of dealing with the crisis and restoring growth. In the EU Recovery Plan, for example, neither gender nor equality were mentioned (Bettio et al., 2012). The idea that economic growth can be redistributive or that social policy can be economically productive are consequently overlooked (Perrons and Plomien, 2013) - and yet austerity policies are bad for growth and, as discussed below, have marked gender impacts. 

Given the different roles that women and men play in the economy, they have been affected in different ways by the crisis and austerity. Men were more adversely affected in the initial aftermath owing to their over-representation in the construction and manufacturing sectors, but benefitted more from the subsequent expansionary policies which focused on physical infrastructure.. By contrast, women are badly affected by austerity policies owing to their over-representation in public sector employment, among users of public sector services and welfare claimants.

 This seems to be the broad picture, though the experience of different countries varies. In the UK the coalition government is seeking to do more than meet the EU’s stability targets by completely eliminating the public sector deficit altogether and reducing the level of government expenditure as a proportion of GDP to 35% – i.e. to pre-welfare state levels (HM Treasury 2014). Yet House of Commons research found that in the 2010 budget, 73% of the cuts in public expenditure fell on women (see also WBG 2014). The groups that gain from these policies are those with higher income who are largely immune from state welfare spending and creditors whose incomes depend on a stable economy and low levels of inflation. This deflationary bias has negative effects for employment and the well-being of the majority through depressing demand.

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