A great step forward is in sight: a new directive on work-life balance has just been approved at EU level, with the final adoption expected to arrive by mid-April 2019. It is argued that these new rules will not only attract more women onto the labour market, but will also encourage less absenteeism from work and improve businesses’ productivity. The Euractiv event held on the 27th of February has been an important platform for discussing the progress made so far. Important was also the presence of Aviva, a global insurance company headquartered in the UK, which presented its progressive diversity and inclusion strategy.
The European Union has a long history in the promotion of gender equality in all its activities, and over the years has made considerable steps forward. Nevertheless, the situation across Member States is still largely uneven, and in recent times progress has generally slowed down, stalled or gone into reverse. More in detail, a 2018 assessment on the cost of gender inequality published by the EPRS found that ‘the persistent gender pay gap is costing women quantified damage in lost earnings, leading to a higher risk of poverty, economic dependence and an increased risk of intimate partner violence’. But the persistence of the gender pay gap has a cost also for the EU, with an estimated loss of 240 billion euros in GDP by 2030 if the issue is not tackled.
With such premises, it is evident that proposals for new EU laws to improve work-life balance and boost gender equality are much needed; however, the last attempt to reform parental leave, for example, was a 2008 proposal on maternity leave, which was later withdrawn in 2015. Katarina Ivankovic-Knezevic, Director of Social Affairs at DG EMPLOYMENT, underlined that a decade has gone by since this last proposal, and many things have changed in the meantime: for instance, women and men see the need for different caring responsibilities, and the work patterns have changed with new kinds of employment.
Indeed, during the current legislative term the EU Commission has been working hard on designing new and progressive proposals; right now, it is introducing two major initiatives as part of the new European Pillar of Social Rights: the Gender Pay Gap Action Plan, which sets out 20 concrete actions to address the root causes of gender pay gap, and the Work-life Balance Package. In particular, the directive on work-life balance contains legislative measures on modernising the existing EU law on parental leave and establishing EU-wide rights to carers’ and paternity leave, pay during leave, and flexible working arrangements for parents and carers; there are also non-legislative measures, which include support for affordable childcare across the EU.
Stakeholders reunited at the Euractiv Network Office praised the work-life balance initiative, defining it as a major achievement and an important step towards gender equality: ‘it’s about shifting the whole culture of child care and long-term care’ said Ivankovic-Knezevic. A key aspect of the directive is indeed not treating it only as a women’s issue; on the contrary, it is important that in modern life men too have an appropriate work-life balance, as they should be able to enjoy special moments with their families like the birth of their children. As a matter of fact, one of the strong points of the directive is that it introduces the right to at least 10 working days of paid paternity leave for fathers around the time of birth or adoption, during which they should be paid no less than the level of sick pay. ‘If everybody had access to the same [parental leave] policy, we would be able to encourage men to take them’, summarised Michelle Maynard, Chief People Officer at Aviva. Ultimately, sharing the responsibility of raising a family would lead to a more balanced relationship – and to a significant cultural change.
At this point, we must ask ourselves where does the private sector stand. It is not uncommon to see this kind of social measures as a financial burden. From Aviva’s perspective, Maynard sustained that guaranteeing an adequate work-life balance is a strategic imperative for any global business nowadays. On its side for example, the global insurance company has been publishing its own gender pay gaps reports as a way to better know themselves and therefore being able to tackle this issue. As part of its diversity and inclusion strategy, Aviva France has also been granting 10 weeks of paid parental leave to its employees – 8 weeks more than what is legally required. This is because the company recognises that parenting is important for both genders: partially addressing the social bias that women should stay at home and take care of the family, the intent of Aviva is to encourage the fathers to take parenting up. And the response of the staff has been significant: as a matter of fact, in France 53% of the eligible men decided to benefit from parental leave.
So what challenges are lying ahead for the EU? Ivankovic-Knezevic pointed out that the EU Commission will now have the difficult tasks of preparing Member States to transpose the new directive into national law and making sure that there is a common understanding of the measures; ‘we hope that the transposition is smoother and quicker than ever’ she affirmed.
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