Sexual inequality rife despite laws

Discrimination against women persists on all levels of Greek society, despite the introduction of legislation designed to tackle it, politicians from across Europe heard at an Athens conference yesterday. «According to the law and the constitution, women have equal rights to men but the social reality is different,» former European Commissioner and PASOK Deputy Anna Diamantopoulou told a packed auditorium at the Athinais cultural center in Votanikos yesterday. The disparity is perhaps most obvious in the country’s labor market, where about twice as many Greek women are jobless as men, Alternate Culture Minister Fanni Palli-Petralia pointed out, without providing figures. «The unemployment we are witnessing in Greece is of the worse kind, not just because of its size but because it chiefly affects young women, many with university degrees,» Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos stressed. It can also be seen in the wage packets Greek women take home which are on average 14 percent less than their male colleagues, according to a recent study cited by Left Coalition Synaspismos Deputy Asimina Xirotiri. Xirotiri stressed that it was the state’s responsibility to provide incentives to businesses to recruit more women. Education and Religious Affairs Minister Marietta Giannakou later responded to the challenge by calling upon women in public posts to recruit female employees, claiming to have «favored» female workers during both her ministerial terms. «I gave them the chance to prove themselves and they never let me down,» she said. Another area where sexual inequality is glaringly obvious is in Greece’s Parliament, speakers agreed. Standing at 8.7 percent, the proportion of women in Greece’s Parliament is among the lowest in the European Union – although Palli-Petralia stressed that there has been some progress in recent years. «Figures are less important than trends,» she said. One of the foreign speakers, Miet Smet, minister of state and a member of the Flemish Parliament, praised the work done by Diamantopoulou and by former Interior Minister and PASOK MP Vasso Papandreou to boost women’s rights in Parliament and on other levels. Papandreou tabled legislation, adopted in 2001, that imposed a one-third quota of women in local elections – a law that succeeded in doubling the number of women on municipal and prefectural councils. Diamantopoulou has never held a ministerial post but won widespread praise when she tried to introduce anti-discrimination legislation on all levels of society using the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam. »What she did was very difficult,» said Smet, whose 1994 bill is credited with tripling the proportion of women in the Belgian Parliament. Smet was refering to the concept of «gender mainstreaming» – the implementation of reforms aimed at boosting equality at every level of policy – which Diamantopoulou «tested» during her term as commissioner. «Every commissioner had to propose a reform aimed at boosting equality for women in all their proposals,» Diamantopoulou later explained. «The idea is that the same approach is undertaken by ministers at the national level, local governors at regional level and community leaders at municipal level. Even setting up just 50 female-run businesses in a large region is progress because it is the completion of a equality-focused goal,» she said. «The point is to set a goal and a deadline. Has the current government set out any such goals?» Giannakou’s retort that she supported Diamantopoulou’s aims in principle answered the former commissioner’s question. Diamantopoulou had also tried to push through reform to medical insurance firms (on the grounds that women pay more medical costs, according to studies by major European universities) but strong opposition led to it being withdrawn, despite having the European Parliament’s support. When trying to push through equality-focused reforms at the national level, women need as much support as possible, according to Smet. «Women think they can create their own institutions to bring about change but, realistically, it is cooperation with existing institutions, especially major ones such as the United Nations, that will keep the issue of sexual equality on the world agenda.» In Norway, it is the Gender Equality Ombudsman that has vastly contributed toward a much fairer balance of men and women in work and public life, according to the ombudsman’s legal adviser, May Schwartz. «The ombudsman’s mandate is not only to enforce a Gender Equality Act established in 1978 but also to promote gender equality in general in Norwegian society,» she told delegates. «The ombudsman receives complaints of alleged breaches of the act’s provisions and may also consider cases on its own initiative,» she explained. Since 1986, there has not been a single Norwegian government comprising less than 40 percent women, and 42 percent of the current government’s Cabinet ministers are women, she added. Schwartz stressed the significance of internal quotas in ensuring virtually equal representation of men and women in Norway’s political bodies; Norway’s Gender Equality Act states that all publicly appointed and elected committees, boards and councils should consist of at least 40 percent of each sex. Both the Greek ministers conceded that Greece is a long way from meeting the model of Norway and other northern European countries but stressed that Greece was heading in the right direction. Palli-Petralia drew attention to the approval of a legislative amendment providing financial support to large families that was approved last year by the new New Democracy government. Palli-Petralia, who has four children herself, said she is familiar with the pressures of bringing up a family while holding down a job («At dawn, I had to deal with the kids first, and then my political diary») but claimed that this dual role teaches women «to make quick decisions and to operate on the basis of ‘we’ not ‘me,’ both valuable tools in politics.» «I always believed that women had the same role to play in politics as men but now I see that we have a different approach, which is perfectly logical as politics is not something divorced from everyday life, it is part of everyday life. But we need both points of view.»