1 April 2021

By Jordy Benooit

Disclaimer:  the reasoning is confined to heterosexual relations, for the sole purpose of discussing the inequality between women and men.

The continent has come a long way since the old days when the main commitments of women were to serve the households of their male counterparts. But if we were to think that we deserve some pats on the back for this, we’d be mistaken. If we were to be content with what we have achieved so far, then we would implicitly minimize the depth of sexism in our society and the complex ways in which gender inequality determines the outcome of our lives. Nevertheless, share the view that we Europeans have come far. And even though we still have far to go, the closer we get to true equality of opportunity, the more complex and maybe even more counterintuitive our measures have to be. Let me explain.

There are numerous issues that we consider to be problematic when it comes to gender inequality. One such issue being the wage gap. You have probably heard of it; it is addressed by women’s movements, media outlets, policy-makers, and presidents (Ortiz, 2016). Yet, there are many misconceptions of what this gap actually is. For the accuracy of the argument, I will first do a quick recap. The gender wage gap, or pay gap, is the difference between the income of all working women, proportionally to the income of all working men. In the EU today, the gender wage gap is calculated at 14,1% (European Commission, 2021). It does not take into account hours worked, type of job or sector, age, or any other mediating factors. The claim that in Europe a woman makes 85,9 cents for every euro a man makes for the same work is false (European Parliament, 2020). This misconception can be dangerous, in the sense that inequality deniers can use our common misconception as ‘proof’ that it is all ‘made up feminist propaganda’ or some other nonsense. To tackle these accusations it is important that we understand the true meaning of our arguments. The gender wage gap is first and foremost a tool for analysis. It allows us to study the effects of real societal factors on wage inequality, and thus allows us to tackle these effects.

One such societal factor is childbirth. It just so happens that women give disproportionately more births than men, so they are the ones that suffer because of it. Speaking of suffering, it is fair to say that pushing a human being the size of a small watermelon out of you, should give you the basic right to recovery time. Since 1992, women within the EU have the right to an absolute minimum of 14 weeks of paid maternity leave, by directive 92/85/EEC. However, in solely economical terms, this means being temporarily inactive. At least within the workforce, because women tend to take up the biggest share of unpaid work, such as household work. This inactiveness has a clear effect on the gender wage gap. In this regard, multiple studies have come to the conclusion that even though the gap does not start at motherhood, it does get broader as a result. This broadening is referred to as the motherhood penalty. I will address one of the explanations, which claims that long absences from the workforce tend to limit a person's access to high skilled jobs or promotions, and usually puts their wage growth on hold (Akgunduz & Plantenga, 2013; Andersen, 2018; Staff & Mortimer, 2012).

The key point to keep in mind here is that while women are exercising their well-deserved right to maternity leave, their male partner is still active in the workforce. Contributing to his personal economic value, whilst that of his partner stagnates. Both working, only one with personal gain, that being a salary increase as a result of being active in the workforce. But then I argue it would be unfair to point fingers at the man for leaving his partner to care for their child, alone. As I am writing this, there is no active EU directive on paternity leave, and still, five EU countries have no legal scheme at all. From the EU countries that do have one, most only allow for two weeks or less (European Commission, 2019).

You could be asking yourself, why am I talking about paternity leave, when women do all the work? That is my point exactly! Women do all the work. I look at it this way. As a family unit, couples have two choices in the absence of paternity leave. The first being that the man either stays home or works less to help take care of his new-born and the household, giving the mother the opportunity to rest, heal and prepare before returning to the workforce at her own pace. The second option being that the man keeps working, doing practically nothing whilst leaving the women to do everything. Given that most paternity leave schemes are short in time, given their country has such a scheme at all, the first option is not really an option for many families. Again, the mother is expected to sacrifice herself for the good of the family as a whole. The latter ‘option’ being a standard practice, despite evident proof of the positive effects of high father involvement in the early stages of child development for both the child and mother (Boyce et al., 2006; Amodia-Bidakowska, Laverty, & Ramchandani, 2020).

The absence of men pushes women into the role of sole unpaid caretaker, which has an effect on their wages after, during, and even before childbirth. For example, women who intend to become mothers anticipate the consequences of motherhood and tend to invest less in their schooling and careers (Staff & Mortimer, 2012). That is logical thinking if you believe that you have to choose between professional success and motherhood.

Could it be that we are so used to the idea of fathers as breadwinners, that we just accept this division of labour without question? Do we have a general conviction that this way is the best and only way to maximize societal wellbeing?

You might already guess where I’m going with my ‘counterintuitive measures’. How can we expect men to help in abolishing the motherhood penalty, whilst not giving them the legal right to do so?

You may be wondering how this is related to the EU.

Female inequality is not a local issue, it is global. Functionally speaking, the highest governing level is the most appropriate for a problem this broad. The highest governing level we Europeans have is the EU. Besides, the EU has been tasked with equality between the sexes since the Treaty of Rome in 1957. The EU has a track record of fighting discrimination with hard law (ERA, n.d.). This forced the member states to abolish measures and laws that allowed for direct discrimination. A milestone being the case Defrenne vs Sabena of 1976, for those who might be interested in finding out about it. But we stumble on a problem. The motherhood penalty is a result of both biological characteristics and indirect discrimination. The EU has no problem dealing with direct discrimination, which can be combatted with hard law. But indirect discrimination is not so as easy to ‘solve’. It takes a coordinated plan, which again goes against the idea of 27 different plans. So even though the EU doesn’t have the perfect means to fight female inequality, I believe that the EU is the best chance we’ve got. The EU has already acknowledged its role in this and has therefore taken action.

On the 20th of June 2019, the EU adopted directive 2019/1158. It will give fathers the right to a minimum of 10 working days of paid paternity leave, from the 1st of August 2022 onward (European Commission, 2019). Yet, I am not as excited about this as you might think. The directive facilitates the standard in 15 member states, further extends an already existing standard in 7 member states, and sets from scratch a new standard in only 5 member states… It is best explained within the functioning of the single market, where the EU tries to align national social measures to create a more leveled playing field. In pure social terms, it is better seen as a symbolic measure rather than an effective one. Still, I am a fan of symbolism. This symbolic act can incentivize a new start of the EU’s role in social policies. Whilst we as a society shift our focus from direct to indirect discrimination, the EU will have to change its strategies to match up. I think of it in this way: when you are close to perfection, measures will increase in difficulty whilst decrease effectiveness.

Let me put it this way: think of it as a pendulum swinging. It is easy to get it closer to the center if it is far away. But when you are close to the center, it is hard not to push it over the center, and up again on the other side. The same principle applies to gender equality. Though we are nowhere near perfection, the closer we are to equality the more thought out and more counterintuitive our measures need to be. I believe that directive 2019/1158 can be the start of many more well-thought-out EU measures to come.

To conclude, female inequality is still a reality, and even with our best efforts it will remain real for way longer. On a positive note,  progress is being made, and as we get closer to our end goal we have to increase the effort and thinking methods we apply to the measures. Even if these measures go against our conventional perception of what it means to be a man or a woman, a father or a mother. Even if they seem counterintuitive or nonsensical. We can start by addressing the division of caretakers and providers. A reality we have justified for far too long as biological differences as if we don’t have the means to overcome the methods. I believe fathers have a job to do when it comes to the so-called "motherhood penalty." And it is not at an office, or at a factory, a shop, the fields, you name it. It is at home. And legislation should allow them to do so.


  • Akgunduz, Y. E., & Plantenga, J. (2013). Labour market effects of parental leave in Europe. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 37(4), 845-862.
  • Amodia-Bidakowska, A., Laverty, C., & Ramchandani, P. G. (2020). Father-child play: A systematic review of its frequency, characteristics and potential impact on children’s development. Developmental Review, 57, 100924.
  • Andersen, S. H. (2018). Paternity leave and the motherhood penalty: New causal evidence. Journal of Marriage and Family, 80(5), 1125-1143.
  • Boyce, W. T., Essex, M. J., Alkon, A., Goldsmith, H. H., Kraemer, H. C., & Kupfer, D. J. (2006). Early father involvement moderates biobehavioral susceptibility to mental health problems in middle childhood. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 45(12), 1510-1520.
  • Cukrowska-Torzewska, E., & Lovasz, A. (2020). The role of parenthood in shaping the gender wage gap–A comparative analysis of 26 European countries. Social science research, 85, 102355.
  • ERA. (n.d.). European Union (EU) anti-discrimination law Print version. Consulted on 25 March 2021, from http://www.era-comm.eu/anti-discri/e_learning/kiosk/dokuments/Anti-discri-print.pdf
  • European Commission. (2019). EU rights to work-life balance [government website]. Consulted on 2 February 2021, from https://ec.europa.eu/info/policies/justice-and-fundamental-rights/gender-equality/women-labour-market-work-life-balance/eu-rights-work-life-balance_en
  • European Commission. (2021). Questions and Answers – Equal pay: Commission proposes measures on pay transparency to ensure equal pay for equal work [government website]. Consulted on 24 March 2021, from https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/qanda_21_961
  • European Parliament (2020, 31 January). Understanding the gender pay gap: definition and causes [government website]. Consulted on 27 January 2021, from https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/20200109STO69925/understanding-the-gender-pay-gap-definition-and-causes
  • Ortiz, E. (2016). President Obama announces rules for closing gender pay gap. Retrieved February 11, 2018.
  • Staff, J., & Mortimer, J. T. (2012). Explaining the motherhood wage penalty during the early occupational career. Demography, 49(1), 1-21.
  • Van Belle, J. (2016). Paternity and parental leave policies across the European Union. rand.