2016 International Women’s Day: Women, Employment, and Intra-EU Mobility

In 2015, the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) published the Gender Equality Index – Measuring Gender Equality in the European Union 2005-2012[1] which examines a number of policy areas in relation to gender equality, including work[2]. The report functions as an assessment tool, thus enabling us to measure the degree of progress made in the European Union and in individual Member States on gender equality. Among the results from the report is a recurring observation that much progress is needed in key areas, such as an increase in the representation of women in political and economic decision-making in public and private sectors in Europe. Results from the 2015 EIGE report concur with a growing body of evidence from both academia and different organizations, which reveals that despite a great deal of progress in education and work experience, much still needs to be done to close the gender gap, while mitigating barriers for women’s advancement in the labour market (e.g., “glass ceiling”, “talent pipeline”, etc.). As such, if on the one hand women de jure have advanced in a number of legislative areas, as well as in education, de facto we still have a long way to go on gender equality in other key spheres of society, such as the economy, politics and health, as illustrated by the results from the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2015 Global Gender Gap Report.

WEF1 This coming 8 March 2016, we will be observing International Women’s Day, a time when we hear a great deal of reflection regarding women’s equality, uneven progress, and recommendations. However, in light of the on-going challenges in the economy and an ever increasing labour market segmentation in Europe, perhaps we need more than just reflection and commitment. We need instead to intensify the implementation of appropriate practices that can contribute to mitigate the persisting gender gap in a sustainable way. According to a number of women’s organizations and influential entities such as the WEF, there is an urgent need to mind the gap[3], which has a direct influence on economic growth and prosperity. For example, [r]esearch by WISE has found that attracting more women to the STEM sector could contribute an extra £2bn to the UK economy. With an ageing workforce, many of whom are due to retire in the next few years, now is the perfect time for STEM employers to focus their efforts on recruiting more women. But as well as attracting new applicants, they also need to give their existing female employees the support to stay in STEM careers.[4]


“We know a lot of countries are investing in education – this chart just illustrates the G20 group of nations – but are they doing enough to help women enter the labor force?”[5]

Keeping with the theme of intra-EU mobility and work, it is encouraging to see that the 2016 Dutch EU Presidency has given a strong impetus to the priorities of – job creation, employment and sustainable growth – in order to overcome the challenges of unemployment and demographic deficit of an ageing population[6]. Henceforth, in light of International Women’s Day and the EU Dutch Presidency priorities (e.g., work), perhaps it is time to have a concerted dialogue towards identifying measures that can address de facto the on-going challenges while strengthening opportunities for female intra-EU highly skilled workers, self-employed and entrepreneurs to successfully integrate into the labour market. Maybe this process could start by questioning: is enough being done to support intra-EU professional women in their mobility path (i.e., entry, retention, and advancement into the labour market)?

Recently, I was asked to consider what measures should be put in place in order to mitigate the low return of human capital in relation to intra-EU mobility of highly skilled women. To begin with, given the complexities involved and lack of comprehensive research on the topic, there is too much to consider to prompt a single answer. Secondly, even though mobility is a major factor to consider in relation to the underutilization of workers’ professional skills and experience, it is important to take into consideration that gender bias and mismatching also affects the trajectory of non-mobile/locally trained highly skilled women. However, in an attempt to answer the above question, I would like to consider two threads, which could contribute towards lessening some of the challenges faced by intra-EU mobile, highly skilled women in relation to integration in the labour market. One, the need to place a greater effort on evidence-based policy and decision making process; and second, strengthening existing practices, as well as developing and implementing better targeted programmes and services on labour insertion, retention and advancement in partnership with employers, and other interested parties.

Evidence-based policy and decision making process

When examining the experiences of highly skilled women it is important to call into question the assumption that gender equality outcomes can be achieved primarily through parity of human capital; instead, quality research in this field emphasizes that it is other factors, such as influential practices and structural barriers, which act as de facto obstacles in the path of progress for female professionals. Studies focusing on highly skilled women consider that the gender dimension regarding institutional barriers for women (including limited opportunities of participation in relevant professional networks), and imbalances in the division of labour (in particular family care) between male and female professionals, are on-going negative contributors towards women’s’ advancement. However, it is in the evidence of studies, such as The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling[7] that we see how endemic, invisible and damaging some of those forces operate at the work-place (including “gender-fatigue”), as well as societal level in relation to women’s progress. For instance, “Male CEOs simply don’t see the lack of women around them, conditioned as they are by decades of initiatives dedicated to correcting gender inequalities… Men are also far less likely to recognize that gender bias is still prevalent in the workplace. While 49 percent of women think gender bias is alive and well today, only 28 percent of men agree[8].

According to McKinsey & Company, Women in the Workplace 2015 report, “it is hard to change what we do not measure”, but it is perhaps equally hard to change what we don’t set clear targets for, including the identification and implementation of practices that work in support of women’s advancement in the labour market. Given the on-going loss of female talent and expertise on the workforce pipeline, we need more than initiatives, like “women on boards” and in positions of leadership, since before reaching the “top of the mountain”, women must be able to continue walking upwards – starting with appropriate entry level jobs for young professionals all the way through middle management and beyond, along with a crucial factor – the engagement of man through a “HE(sponsor)ForSHE(highly skilled worker)[9]! As the subject of female highly skilled mobility is still under-research, it is in evidence-based studies of barriers faced by non-mobile professional women in the labour market that one may find inspiration and examples of good practice, which can be adapted in support of mobile professionals. For example, if mentoring mobile/migrants is a key to provide a set of helpful tools and advise to aspiring professionals in their career, it is perhaps the “transnational” sponsor which will make possible the re-entry of those in the mid-career path in a given host country. After all, a successful mobility (especially first employment) depends on an equal network of supporters who can back-up one’s professional stance in the face of unknown international degrees and work experience to reassure potential employers in the recruitment process. As highlighted in the The Sponsor Effect, “[w]hat women need now…is what men have always relied on: sponsors. Sponsors are more than mentors… Sponsors are powerful backers who, when they discern talent, anoint it with their attention and support”[10].

Target Programmes, Service and Practice in Partnership with Employers

As stated in a previous post, networks and professional advice on labour markets are key elements in a job search, along with access to labour markets for highly skilled mobile professionals which does not place them in a disadvantageous position vis-à-vis locally educated and trained professionals. However, here is the conundrum. Where are the public supporting programmes aimed at facilitating individual advice and job-matching services towards job entry for mid-career mobile professional women in the EU? To my knowledge, most specialized programmes addressing the unemployed/jobseekers focus primarily on youth and 50+ workers, hence constituting a gap for those mobile workers in their 30s and 40s. In addition, intra-EU mobiles may not qualify for existing public employment programmes geared to those facing the challenges of integration into a labour market (i.e. 45+), due to a lack of history (i.e. time period) of unemployment in the host country, even if they have been unemployed in a previous country of residence prior to mobility.

As such, there is a need to review existing and new initiatives on job-seeking support services in view of opening-up to intra-EU mobile workers, as well as to develop and implement special programmes/services that can facilitate de facto labour market integration for female highly skilled mobiles in line with European Commission recommendations (see previous post). As an individual assessment approach for job seekers is gaining momentum, along with the 2015 European Commission proposal on integration of the long-term unemployed[11], it is paramount to consider evidence, including new research, about what works, in order to attune new programmes to our times, as well as to strike a balance between the different target groups being served. Studies reveal that programmes addressing the unemployed have focussed a great deal on the short-term unemployed, hence leaving the more challenging cases behind. In line with under-represented target groups, evidence from the recent European Commission Employment and Social Developments in Europe 2015[12] underlines that older workers need more tailored support than youth due to a number of disadvantages, including potential bias in the recruitment process.

Furthermore, working in partnership with potential employers and different professional networks in order to raise awareness of potential disadvantages faced by intra-EU highly skilled women, as well as to promote a more balanced view in relation to nationally trained peers is paramount. In terms of practices, perhaps potential employers (especially those who place a greater premium on problem-solving/results-oriented skills) should consider changing the recruitment process towards placing a greater weight on tasks and performance, instead of background. Moreover, if on the one hand studies reveal that training programmes aimed at skill upgrading and employability alone are very weak if not directly linked to employment, on the other hand we are faced with widespread reporting by employers of the difficulty to find appropriately skilled labour. However, here is an interesting evidence-based observation by the WEF: “Employers often attribute their difficulties in recruiting to a lack of appropriately qualified candidates. However, many reported shortages arise due to the inability or unwillingness of firms to offer competitive pay and attractive working conditions, to poor recruitment and training policies, and/or to geographical barriers. As a result, many of the identified shortages could be addressed by facilitating labour mobility, promoting better recruitment and human resource management practices or supporting small and medium-sized firms in identifying needed skills and providing training.”[13]

Conceivably, in the light of growing evidence, it is time to move away from the soft commitment and into concrete investment aimed at achieving a more diversity-oriented outcome. For example, the on-going effort to curb unintentional bias in the recruitment process, is an important step on the road towards greater diversity in personnel. However, the practice of “blind” CVs may not be enough to address unintentional bias, since there is strong subjectivity involved in the process of reading and interpreting a CV, along with the interview process which leans towards likeability, suitability bias, and assumptions about the candidate’s background (sometimes based on the readers/interviewers’ limited knowledge of educational institutions, standards, and practices in another country). As such, maybe human resources and potential employers are to consider identifying and using a set of more objective tools, prior to the personal impression gained through the CV and interview process, such as “blind audition”. One case in point is the work of GapJumpers[14], which considersblind auditions level the playing field for all applicants”.



In conclusion, on 8 March 2016, International Women’s Day, do we have much to celebrate or is there a great deal of work and advocacy to be done towards women’s equality? Optimistically, might 2016’s International Women’s Day observance and the EU Dutch Presidency priority on work serve as a vehicle in the direction of concrete action still needed to enable intra-EU highly skilled women (i.e. jobseekers, workers, self-employed, and entrepreneurs) an even participation in the labour market that is commensurate to their skills, professional experience, and aspirations.  Strengthening cooperation and partnership with employers towards job creation, and the implementation of appropriate services, in particular specific projects/programmes tailored to the integration of intra-EU mobile and highly skilled into the labour market, are in my opinion the two main priorities if gender equality-integration is the aim. After all, labour market integration is one of the main vehicles through which professionals in the mobile path integrate into the larger community. Overall, the enabling factor in the realization of free mobility rights is the essential element that makes it possible for all of us to contribute in a meaningful way to economic growth, productivity, prosperity, innovation, and well-being in Europe.


[1] http://eige.europa.eu/rdc/eige-publications/gender-equality-index-2015-measuring-gender-equality-european-union-2005-2012-report

[2] Article 23 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union states ‘Equality between men and women must be ensured in all areas, including employment, work and pay

[3] According to the 2015 Global Gender Gap Report, women are not likely to reach economic equality with men until 2133, World Economic Forum.

[4] https://wise.statementcms.com/resources/2014/11/not-for-people-like-me and http://gender.bitc.org.uk/news-opinion/news/national-women-engineering-day-and-myths-about-women-stem

[5] Graphics 1 and 2 including text – World Economic Forum, accessed 17 Jan. 2016, http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2015/report-highlights/

[6] The EESC Priorities during the Dutch Presidency, Jan-June 2016, www…

[7] Hewlett, S., with Kerrie Peraino, Laura Sherbin, and Karen Sumberg “The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling”, Center for Work-life Policy, Harvard Business Review – Research Report, Dec. 2010.

[8] Hewlett, S., with Kerrie Peraino, Laura Sherbin, and Karen Sumberg “The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling”, Center for Work-life Policy, Harvard Business Review – Research Report, Dec. 2010, page 3. Figures based on the survey carried out for the study.

[9] HEforSHE, UN Women – Solidarity Movement for Gender Equality.

[10] Hewlett, S., with Kerrie Peraino, Laura Sherbin, and Karen Sumberg “The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling”, Center for Work-life Policy, Harvard Business Review – Research Report, Dec. 2010, page 4

[11] EC Proposal for a Council Recommendation “On the integration of the long-term unemployed into the labour market”, [SWD)2015) 176 final}, Brussels, 2015 and Analytical Supporting Document {COM(2015)462 final}. Access on line.

[12] http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=738&langId=en&pubId=7859&furtherPubs=yes

[13] World Economic Forum, Matching Skills and Labour Needs: Building Social Partnerships for Better Skills and Better Jobs, 2014.

[14] https://www.gapjumpers.me/