Report: European Parliament Public Hearing on Work-Life Balance and Gender Equality, March 2014

On Wednesday 18 March, the ETF Women’s Committee attended a public hearing on Work-Life Balance and Gender Equality, held by the European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality. Click this link for event information, including some of the speakers’ presentations. The afternoon was divided into two sessions, each addressed by a panel of speakers followed by a question-and-answer session. I have noted here the key points made by each speaker and in the ensuing discussion.


PANEL 1 Claudia   Menne – Confederal Secretary, European Trade Union Confederation

  • Women working mainly part-time hours are at risk of poverty.
  • Men are more and more in precarious employment.
  • Euro Barometer data 2013 shows that work-life balance and pay gap are the biggest gender problems arising from austerity.
  • 17-35-year-old women say that the biggest problem they experience with employers is their view of women having children, whereas for men, the main issue is skills.
  • The EU has Framework Agreements on parental leave, 1996 and 2010.
  • We should demand structural change, based on these principles:
    • the ‘standard worker’ is a worker who also has caring responsibilities
    • careers should be flexible, with varying levels of intensity
    • work organisations should be flexible
  • We need new images that challenge stereotypes
  • Our response to the crisis should be:
    • no austerity
    • the gender dimension to be considered in all issues
    • revise the Gender Pay Gap Directive
    • increase paternity leave
    • expand childcare, aiming for a 30% target

Konstantina Davaki – Research Fellow, London School of Economics and Political Science

  • Work-life balance is the ability to combine paid work with caring duties.
  • ‘Life’ is more than care responsibilities.
  • Work-life balance is transient, dynamic and intersectional.
  • We need to raise awareness among working parents of their rights.
  • There are institutional, individual and societal factors in work-life balance.
  • Anti-government protests are increasing.
  • We need a shift from a consumerist culture towards a solidarity culture.

Agnes Parent Thirion – Senior Programme Manager for working conditions, Eurofound

  • The group most dissatisfied with their work-life balance is young fathers.
  • Work-life balance tends to be better the more even the numbers of men and women are in a particular job, and worse in jobs which are only/mainly men or only/mainly women.
  • Job quality/satisfaction tends to be higher among women (though this may be due to women expecting less!).
  • Once people have children, their job prospects drop.
  • Men do longer hours in paid work than women do, but when you add unpaid work, women work more hours in total than men do.
  • Men’s wellbeing is better at all life stages than women’s.

Question and answer session

  • Only 8 MEPs were present out of 80 who should have an interest in this subject – why?
  • What are the differences between the situation of women workers in peripheral and central countries? Are panel members aware that in Hungary, women work ‘as slaves’ in big foreign-owned supermarkets which forbid trade unions?
  • One comment was from Hungarian MEP Krisztina Morvai (, a right-winger from the Jobbik group who had been a left-winger in the past. She suggested that women workers should moderate our demands and settle for what we have got!

PANEL 2 Isabell Welpe – Chair for Strategy and Organisation, Technische Universität München

  • promoted the idea of ‘flexicurity’ – that jobs should be both flexible and secure – and argued that both employers and workers want this (see my response below)
  • advocated openness and democratisation of organisation, for example through workers electing managers; cooperatives; employee ownership
  • introduced the concept of ‘free permanent’ employees – which seems to mean a casualised pool of stand-in workers
  • ‘digitalisation allows reconciliation’ ie. new technology increases opportunities for balancing work and life eg. working from home
  • presented research evidence that the same qualifications, competence and behaviours are evaluated differently in men and in women.

Ana Rubin – Left Party, Sweden

  • Sweden’s Left Party is campaigning for a six-hour day, a key policy for forthcoming General Election; Sweden scrapped six-day working (Saturday plus M-F) working in 1973; this policy is an achievable follow-up to that.
  • When France adopted a 35-hour week, its aims were to create jobs and create a better work-life balance; and it led to a better quality of life and a more even distribution of paid and unpaid work between men and women.
  • Employers will discriminate against women for as long as we are the ones who are expected to look after the home and children.
  • In Sweden:
    • 32% of women workers are part-time; 10% of men workers are part-time
    • 77% of women workers take parental leave; 33% of men workers take parental leave
    • the current government is cutting tax for the rich and undermining employment rights and public services; the money spent on the tax cuts could have funded the six-hour day

When we reached the Q&A session, most of the MEPs had left and there were no questions forthcoming, so members of the audience (starting with me!) were able to insist on asking questions. I asked two questions:

  1. Isn’t there a problem with the term ‘work-life balance’ failing to acknowledge that the ‘life’ part also includes a lot of (unpaid) work eg. childcare, elderly/disabled care etc (it’s a labour of love, but it’s still work)? So, don’t we need to discuss not just ‘balancing’ but collectivising and alleviating this work? That is done through eg. social care, nurseries, day care, etc – but these are being cut under austerity measures.
  2. Don’t employers and workers mean different things by ‘flexicurity’? Workers want jobs to be secure, so we can be confident we will still have a job next year, decade etc, and that pay will at least keep up with the cost of living; and flexibility to fit our work around our caring responsibilities and leisure time. Employers, though, want to have the security of insisting that workers are flexible enough to work wherever and whenever employers want us to for whatever low pay they say they can afford.

Ana Rubin replied ‘yes’ to both questions and endorsed the points I had made, and argued that it is a myth that young workers wanted to be ‘flexible’ in the way that employers mean it. I have exchange contact details with Ana and we will be exchanging information and ideas. Isabell Welpe asserted that the model I described does not apply across the board, and that exposure of working conditions, for example though the ‘glass door’ portal, will mean that ‘it will no longer be possible for employers to exploit workers’. A man from Age Platform Europe pointed out that elderly women are disadvantaged because their pensions are being eroded and are low because women’s unpaid work is not counted. The Chair summarised the hearing by discussing the social impact of the economic crisis, arguing that ‘austerity measures are breaking down social fabric … the crisis we are facing is not just of economics and figures, it is also a crisis of values’.


Quality time away from work is important to all workers. Women in particular bear the brunt of unpaid caring work and often struggle to balance the paid and unpaid work with little time for leisure. ‘Work-life balance’ is a term commonly used to describe this issue, but it is problematic, as it obscures the reality for many women (and some men) that time away from paid work is spent doing unpaid work. Key factors in poor ‘work-life balance’ include:

  • gender segregation in work ie. mainly-male/mainly-female jobs
  • the expansion of insecure, temporary, casualised working
  • long working hours
  • cuts to social welfare provision

The union should:

  • continue to pursue demands including: oppose cuts in social welfare and other austerity measures; extend ‘flexible working’ rights; secure, permanent employment – no to casualisation; shorter working hours without loss of pay
  • demand action to even the proportion of men and women in areas of work, challenging gender stereotypes of what is a ‘man’s’ or ‘woman’s’ job
  • publicise the facts about this issue (eg. an article in RMT News)
  • ask the Women’s Advisory Committee for further ideas for action.

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