Unveiling the keys to equality: enabling factors for gender equity in labour markets

In the heart of the Euro-Mediterranean region, where economic growth opportunities are evolving, recent data reveal a stark reality: more than a quarter of women in 13 out of 28 countries are neither in education, employment, nor training (NEET), with some countries reaching up to 40%. Barriers to women employment are still to be removed through dedicated policies and initiatives, including support to fathers in devoting time to family and childcare.

These alarming figures, disclosed by Xavier Matheu, Senior Advisor to the Director at the European Training Foundation (ETF), set the stage for a pivotal conference on Gender and Inclusion in Active Labour Market Policies. Amid these challenges, the dialogue has become a beacon of hope, exploring multifaceted strategies and enabling factors to propel women to the forefront of the job market. While launching the discussion, Matheu acknowledged the diverse challenges women face in different countries: "No one size fits all," he emphasized.

Ana Varela Mateos, Director of the Spanish Institute of Women, underscored the challenges women face in the job market, highlighting both vertical and horizontal segregation. "Reforming the job market is key," she asserted, emphasising the need for a transition to a new job market that ensures equal opportunities, focusing on co-responsibility in caregiving jobs, and adopting a feminist foreign policy for social justice. And beyond that, "it is not only quantity that matters (how many women are on the job, or how many companies they do open) but also quality (what kind of jobs they have)", EPRD international expert Nicola Duell added. "In the countries in which the ETF operates, women are more at risk to have vulnerable employments and investing in education is key," she stressed.

Ambassador John Paul Grech, Deputy Secretary General for Social and Civil Affairs Division, at the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), drew attention to the economic potential of women in the Euro-Mediterranean region. "Investing in women could lead to a 25% increase in GDP," he highlighted, stressing the need to invest in enablers for change: inclusive legislation, educational access, and challenging persistent gender norms. Initiatives from the UfM aim to promote awareness and economically empower women: in March 2024, on Women's Day, the celebration will be combined with the Union of Arab Banks, signifying a crucial link between women's economic empowerment. "Banks are willing to extend their resources to women entrepreneurs," he stated, "providing further opportunities for women to advance their initiatives." The commitment to catalysing the role of women in the region remains steadfast, and constitutes a further step towards inclusive economic growth.

Although recent data from the Moroccan Ministry of Economy and Finance reveal a 10% increase in the number of women-owned businesses over the last two years, "women's contributions are still untapped," added Moroccan entrepreneur Samia Ghmimed. “This is mainly due to an ongoing shift in mindset, and more is to be done,” she added while sharing the struggles in her personal journey. Ghmimed acknowledged the progress in women taking leadership roles but highlighted existing disparities and stressed the need for collective action to challenge stereotypes and tap into the contributions of women.

International experts Marko Stermšek and Donatella di Vozzo from the European Investment Bank (EIB) and ETF, respectively, addressed the need for quality employment for women. "While self-employed entrepreneurs tend to work longer hours and have more flexibility, female-owned companies still find it difficult to access finance and networks," stressed Stermšek. “Overcoming stigma, cultural beliefs, lack of flexibility, and addressing social and family norms are key, together with investments and access to finance,” added Di Vozzo.

Adding to this, Margaret Carrol, representing the European Investment Bank (EIB), provided valuable insights: “Among EIB clients, female entrepreneurship averages about 20%, while in the East, it is around 36%”, she said, flagging regional disparities linked to women’s engagement in the job markets. 'We work with the finance sector to increase access to finance for women entrepreneurs and direct investments to public/private clients, maximizing employment”, she stated, also reminding the strategy of the EIB, which is devolving 20% of its funds to non-EU countries.

"Work-life balance, access to finance, and financial inclusion in general are priorities," reinforced Lena Karlsson from the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations. Karlsson emphasised priorities such as decent work, equal pay, and the transition to formal economies, highlighting that environmental, technological, and social factors are key elements in promoting women's entrepreneurship. The role of social systems, including paid parental leave and childcare services, was also underscored. "We have launched a Father's Academy in the Eastern Partnership region", she highlighted, stressing the need to develop initiatives supporting men to undertake parental duties.

Although evidence-based decision-making is essential to generating impactful actions, “collecting data is very complicated," acknowledged Anna Dorangricchia, UfM’s gender inclusion expert, underscoring complexities. Highlighting the UfM's commitment across 43 countries, Dorangricchia emphasised the need to prioritise work-life balance, access to finance, and overall financial inclusion and pointed at the 2022 Ministerial declaration in Madrid as a guiding document.

The launch of the conference opened discussions at a regional and country level, to develop a roadmap for addressing gender disparities in the Euro-Mediterranean job market, with a focus on data-driven initiatives and enablers for change. Insights shared by experts, entrepreneurs, and policymakers will continue towards the quest for gender equality in the workforce.

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