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When it Doesn't Pay to Be a Woman

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Revisiting blatantly sexist ads from the days of yore could be mistaken as an occasion to give ourselves a misguided pat on the back. True, slogans such as "show her it's a man's world" and "men are better than women" are unlikely to make a comeback any time soon. But while some of the more conspicuous signs of sexism have disappeared from public life, that does not mean that all is well.

The European Parliament will use International Women's Day on Thursday 8 March to call attention to the continuing inequality between men and women, the effects of which can be felt in the wallet. Women had to work until 2 March this year to earn the equivalent of what men made in 2011. Or to put it differently: for every hour a man works, a woman has to work an extra 10 minutes in order to earn the same. For every €100 men earn, women earn only €86. On average women earn 17.1% less than men in the EU but this pay gap varies from 3.2% to 30.9% between countries.

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These differences in pay persist even though women have caught up academically. In all EU countries female students do better at school and around 59% of all university graduates are women. The reasons for the continuing pay gap are various and complicated. Women tend to do more part-time work than men and often dominate in lower-paid sectors, or industries with fewer opportunities for collective representation and bargaining power. Research also shows a marked difference once women return to the labour market after their first maternity leave.

Although the European Commission has proposed several laws over the years to plug the gender pay gap, progress has been slow: the EU average only dropped from 17.7% in 2006 to 17.1% in 2009. This is why the European Parliament's committee on women's rights and gender equality has produced a draft report with recommendations on how to better apply the principle of equal pay for equal work, or work of equal value.

For example, the report says companies should be made to keep wage statistics broken down by gender, which would be available to employees and their representatives. It also calls for equality promotion and monitoring bodies to play a greater role, by giving them legal powers to investigate or even impose sanctions. It further proposes that social partners should be empowered to put equal pay issues on the agenda and that more should be done to prevent discrimination. Finally, the report suggests that a study should be conducted on the feasibility, effectiveness and impact of launching possible sanctions such as disqualification of public benefits, administrative fines and penalties, including compensation to the victim.

Of course at this point this is only the view of the committee. The recommendations of the report will still have to be debated and voted on in the European Parliament and it is likely that other MEPs have very different views of the situation and what should be done about it. However, the figures on differences in pay show that it is a discussion worth having. As long as it is doesn't pay to be a woman (for doing the same job), it might be a man's world after all.

Take part in the Facebook chat with Mikael Gustafsson, chair of the women's rights and gender equality committee, this Thursday at 2pm GMT.

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