EU wants employers to report pay levels to fix gender gap

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a media conference at the end of an EU summit in Brussels, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg joined a videoconference with EU leaders on Friday, to focus on ways to boost cooperation and avoid doubling up on security issues between the military alliance and the 27-nation bloc. (Johanna Geron, Pool via AP)

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union executive wants to force employers to be much more open about how much their staff earn to make it easier for women to challenge wage imbalances and close the gender pay gap.

Even though the gender pay gap across the 27-nation bloc has been reduced to 14% for people doing exactly the same work, the European Commission wants to eliminate the disparity by imposing specific rules to make pay levels public.

“For equal pay, you need transparency. Women must know whether their employers treat them fairly,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Since its inception in 1957, the European Union has sought to end such gender bias, but progress has been slow over the decades. When it comes to pension rights, reflecting working conditions of the past 30 to 40 years, the gender gap still stands at 30%.

Wage conditions and scales in Europe have long been shrouded in secrecy, which has helped extend inequality and proved to be a big hurdle for those demanding pay justice.

And companies have fallen far short in helping bridge the gap, said EU Vice President Vera Jourova. “We have sufficiently strong evidence that we need to have binding rules and not only to rely on social responsibility of the companies because we see that it doesn’t lead anywhere,” she said.

She said that over the past 7 years, the gap had closed only by little over 2 percentage points. “You can imagine if we continue like that, we will achieve pay fairness some time in several decades. So we cannot continue like that.”

Under the commission’s proposals, employers would have to give information about initial pay levels in the vacancy announcement and ahead of the job interview, during which employers will not be allowed to ask about applicants’ previous pay grades.

Employees will be allowed to ask employers the average pay levels by gender for people doing the same work.

And to put more pressure on big companies, the proposal forces firms with more than 250 employees to publish information about any gender pay gap.

If women remain underpaid, the commission wants them to be able to get back pay and it wants the burden of proof to be on employers, not the women challenging them.

The European Trade Union Confederation lauded the intent but said the proposals lacked teeth to force companies into decisive action. It complained that small- and medium-size companies, where such discrimination often happens, were excluded from key elements of the enforcement.

The proposal now goes to the European Parliament and EU countries for further discussion before it can be approved.

The announcement came ahead of International Women’s Day next Monday.

The EU noted that women had been disproportionally affected by the pandemic, many having to add more home tasks to their work schedule because of the closure of schools and day care centers.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has not only consolidated injustices and inequalities that already existed in our societies, it is also likely to wipe out decades of achievements by women, on progresses in the labor market,” said European Parliament President David Sassoli.

Jourova said women were vulnerable because most were still at the bottom of the pay scale.

“That over-representation in lower-paid sectors and occupations such as, for instance, hospitality, retail or personal services has made them particularly vulnerable in the labor market struck by the COVID-19 crisis,” Jourova said.

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