The European Commission is currently approving the national recovery and resilience plans that EU Member States have submitted to benefit from EU grants and loans to build back after the crisis. Despite the obligation to consider gender impacts and the fact that women have been particularly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, most recovery and resilience plans do not sufficiently do so and fail to link efforts towards a green and gender-just society. The European Green Deal and the EU Digital Agenda are important spending priorities, but the risk of a backlash on gender equality is real if they are pursued in a gender-blind manner.
The aim of the €750-billion recovery instrument known as NextGenerationEU, with the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) being by far the largest chunk, is to help repair the damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated socio-economic crisis, as well as to build back better according to the EU’s climate, environmental and digital goals. To access RRF funds, EU Member States had to prepare and submit their national recovery and resilience plans to the European Commission, which started approving the first batch of plans in mid-June in line with its deadline of two months following receipt of the plans. If it considers that requirements of the regulation to be met, the EU Council then approves the disbursement of funds by qualified majority.
The RFF has two priorities: 37% of expenditures must go towards climate action and 20% towards the digital transformation. Without additional measures encouraging female employment in the respective sectors (energy, transport, building and digital), these spending priorities will most probably create jobs mainly for men, thus reproducing or aggravating existing gender segregation and inequalities in the labour market. At the same time, the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic hit women and marginalised groups hardest as they are overrepresented in low-paid and service jobs (such as retail, hospitality etc.) that were heavily affected by lockdown measures. Women have also been at the forefront of fighting the virus, as they are overrepresented in most of the so-called essential work and make up the majority of frontline workers in health and social care. As these jobs are primarily close-contact jobs with small possibilities of working from home, many experienced an increase in workload, health risk and difficulties to manage work-life balance. Women also took on the bulk of the additional unpaid care work that resulted from lockdown measures. The outlined gender gaps are even more significant in Italy and Spain that will receive particularly large shares of the RFF.
In spite of the negative impacts of the Covid-19 crisis on gender equality, the European Commission’s first proposal on the RRF, just like the communication on the European Green Deal itself, did not contain a reference to gender. This is regrettable, as many ways to combine both green and gender-just expenses exist. Increasing the number of jobs and improving labour conditions in the care sector as well as compensating care provided outside the official labour market is an example. The lack of affordable, accessible and high quality care services in most EU Member States and the fact that care work is not equally shared between women and men have a direct negative impact on the former’s ability to participate fully in social, economic, cultural and political life. At the same time, providing care is labour-intensive and barely polluting. A Care Deal could therefore help combining caring for the planet and caring for each other and would furthermore be relevant from an intersectional point of view as many migrant women work in the care sector. Investing in clean public transport is another example of combining green and gender equality objectives towards a resilient and decarbonised future, as men and women have different mobility patterns with women using public transport more often.
Thanks to pressure from civil society and gender-aware Members of the European Parliament, the European Commission added a gender dimension to the RRF retrospectively. Governments should set out the expected contribution to gender equality in their national recovery and resilience plans. The question now is whether the European Commission seriously considers gender mainstreaming and compliance with the categorisation of climate spending during the on-going analyses of the national recovery and resilience plans. Especially for bigger EU Member States, the European Commission seems to lack the political will do so.
Concerning climate spending, EU Member States may add up budget lines to meet the 37% threshold, but oftentimes not without some greenwashing, as highlighted by the European Parliament last week. As a matter of fact, there are indications that many governments do not apply the ‘do no significant harm’ principle, and circumvent, ignore or do not address the categorisation of green investments.
Let’s have a look at the example of Germany, whose plan was approved by the Commission on 22 June 2021. The European Commission notes that “gender equality issues and equal opportunities for all are adequately addressed” which comes at a surprise given that there is no concrete reference to gender or intersectionality in the actual plan and women are mentioned only twice: in the context of strengthening their representation in executive boards and in providing access to training. The European Commission also states that “the plan’s expected contribution to equal opportunities for specific groups, such as older persons and persons with disabilities, could have been described more clearly”. The plan fails to link green and gender-just transition efforts. The European Commission’s analysis is more honest on the green topics by saying that “meeting […] climate and environmental targets requires additional efforts” in Germany. Several environmental NGOs and think tanks have also criticized the German plan for lacking green ambition and for relying on accounting tricks to meet the climate spending target.
Against this background, it is now important to hold both the European Commission and EU economy and finance ministers accountable. They must take into account the intersectional gender dimension before approving the national recovery and resilience plans and ensure that the green spending target is not met using accounting tricks. Investments must not only stimulate the economy, but also address environmental challenges and boost social and gender justice. We also need stronger commitments to stakeholder involvement, engagement and full transparency. In most cases, the national recovery and resilience plans have been elaborated without inclusive and consistent consultation of civil society, in spite of the guidance from the European Commission recommending doing so. Youth are also an important stakeholder group that too often does not have a seat at the table but deserves one, as demanded in this Climate of Change petition.
While both the centrality of the European Green Deal and the inclusion of gender dimension in the RRF are important steps forward, there is a risk that governments may not fully exploit these opportunities, especially when it comes to thinking the two together instead of in silos. Unbalanced investments in the still male-dominated green and digital sector may deepen the gender employment and investment gap. More of the budgets need to go for example towards care, which can boost well-being and is low emitting by nature. Gender democracy also requires a higher share of women’s participation in the energy, transport, buildings and digital sectors and governments need to pursue policies that tackle the existing gender divide. The European Green Deal does not contain a reference to gender and yet, the European Commission launched an ambitious Gender Equality Strategy. It is time to link them and the billions of recovery funds should be a good starting point to finally do so!
* The European Environmental Bureau is currently preparing a dedicated report on exploring the links between gender and environmental issues in the European Green Deal. This article is based on a more thorough analysis of a chapter in this report written by Lisa Tostado and Katy Wiese.