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Gender Equal Until We Talk Money: Prioritising Gender on the EU Agenda

The European Union calls itself a ‘frontrunner’ for gender equality. The European Commission claims that “the EU has made significant progress in gender equality over the last decades”, a development which it attributes to “gender mainstreaming” and “integration of the gender perspective into all other policies”. Indeed, the first policy addressing this issue was the Treaty of Rome (1957), which specified that both sexes must be paid equally for equal work. More recently, in 2000 the Council established a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation. The Commission’s proposed 2020-2025 Gender Equality Strategy seeks to further advance gender equality in Europe, focusing on freedom from violence, fostering an intersectional perspective and addressing women’s empowerment globally. European Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli, said in 2020 that “We need to keep up the fight for gender equality, in particular when the COVID-19 crisis has such a gendered dimension.”

However, despite these efforts much remains to be done. Paradoxically, the European Court of Auditors (ECA) published a report in May this year, stating that too little has been done to mainstream gender in the EU budget and actively promote gender equality in policy-making. This is evidenced by the fact that the 2021 Gender Equality Index score for the EU-27 has only improved by 0.6% since 2020, and only 4.9% since 2010. At this rate, it will take nearly three generations to achieve gender parity, and this is without accounting for the erosion of progress due to COVID-19.

Gender inequality has deep roots in our society, forming a foundation which inhibits social and economic development. This article argues that gender should be included and taken fully into account in all policy areas, and specifically in economic and monetary policy. Indeed, gender equality is recognized as a significant driving force behind economic growth. Gender equality leads to a more prosperous society with significant economic and social development that benefits every human being. The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) estimates that improving gender equality could increase EU GDP per capita between 6.1% and 9.6% by 2050, with a potential impact on GDP in specific EU member states of up to 12% by 2050. States are often the first in line to sign international conventions related to gender equality, voicing commitments to improve gender equality and women’s rights - until we talk about money. When budgets do not reflect commitments, then these are just empty promises.

What is gender-responsive budgeting?

Gender-responsive budgeting involves thinking about the gender impact at all stages of the budget process in order for gender to be reflected in budget decisions (Oxfam, 2018). Women, men, and non-binary people often have very different practical and strategic needs and priorities. Women and non-binary people remain under-represented in public life; only 21% of government ministers were women, with only 14 countries having achieved 50% or more women in cabinets. With an annual increase of just 0.52%, gender parity in ministerial positions will not be achieved before 2077. This means that government policy, including economic policy, may not take their needs and priorities into account.

These differences mean that policies that appear neutral on the surface may have unintended consequences, including increasing gender inequality. For example, trade policies have the potential to entrench gender inequalities as they fail to account for the structural barriers many women face in society, such as participation in the labour force. Significantly, according to the European Parliament, only 20% of current EU trade agreements mentioned women’s rights in 2018. The OECD found that men hold a relatively high proportion of jobs in exporting firms, whilst women are more commonly employed in the supply industry of exporting, a second tier. Furthermore, women are more likely to be employed in lower-paid, lower-skill work with greater job insecurity. Trade policies that encourage international competition can push wages down for those in low-skill jobs with low bargaining power.

At the same time, most governments base their budgets on those sections of the economy on which data are gathered: the formal, paid labour market and those areas which contribute to GDP. When policymakers make policy, they look at these figures and ignore other relevant factors such as informal and unpaid labour because the data are missing. However, estimates of the unpaid economy show that it is worth at least as much if not more than the paid economy. Women perform 76.2% of total hours of unpaid care work, more than three times as much as men. But unpaid caring, cleaning, child-rearing, and domestic food production are all unmeasured and may not be considered when policy is made. The unpaid care economy has been called ‘an invisible 10.9 trillion-dollar industry’ (ILO, 2020).

The concept of gender budgeting emerged in European spheres only twenty years ago. Previously, gender equality belonged in the social portfolio and was considered separate from monetary or economic discussions. Today, the foundations of an ambitious European budget, calculated upon gender differences, are making their way through the financial departments of the European Union. While this transformation takes time and political will, it also requires a significant shift in thinking and practice. It involves opening up the process of budget-making to a broader group of stakeholders; it calls for a re-prioritization of equality issues; it necessitates the matching of policy commitments with resource allocation; and it insists on the acknowledgement of the care economy and a transformation in the way in which national budgets are formulated and implemented (Quinn, 2009).

Why is gender-responsive budgeting needed?

Striving towards a gender-responsive budget does not only improve the lives of women and non-binary people; it has broader benefits for the whole of society. Specifically, gender budgeting supports the implementation of modern standards of public financial management principles. These include accountability, transparency, performance and results orientation, and effectiveness. Furthermore, gender-responsive budgeting leads to better governance, for example by increasing participation in budgeting processes. By involving women, men, and non-binary people equally in EU Funds’ budget preparation, for instance, through public consultations and the use of sex-disaggregated data, budgets will be more responsive and transparent, states more accountable, and EU Funds’ objectives more effectively implemented (EIGE, 2020).

Examples from elsewhere in the world demonstrate the benefits of adopting a gender perspective in economic policies. In Uganda, gender-responsive budgeting has helped elected representatives look at budgets from the perspective of gender equality. The Forum for Women in Democracy, the women’s budget group, produced briefings analyzing the budget from the perspective of poor women and communicated them to parliamentarians. A former leading female parliamentarian stated that the briefings gave gender issues ‘credibility and respect’ (Elson & Sharp, 2010, 523). In Zimbabwe, gender-responsive budgeting was introduced in 2001, resulting in increased capacities and assertiveness on gender equality and budgeting (Muchabaiwa 2010, 128). This was achieved through introducing debates into parliament about care work and lessening the burden on women, to consulting with women’s organisations, grassroots women and other stakeholders about what they wanted the gender-sensitive budget to look like (Muchabaiwa 2010, 114). Overall, the gender-responsive budgeting policy helped the government to close the gender gap by ensuring public money was allocated more effectively, as well as bringing marginalised women into the conversation and decision-making.

The way forward

It is essential to understand that gender-responsive budgeting is not just about funding gender-equality initiatives; it is about understanding the impact of budgetary and policy decisions on gender-equality goals and using this information to adjust for inequalities by introducing changes to public expenditure and revenue.

Despite the EU budget being smaller than national budgets, the EU “shared management” structure is still likely to significantly impact gender budgeting. It can influence domestic norms and policies by attaching European gender-equality standards and conditions to EU funds and programmes. Given its complex societal dimensions, gender equality often falls into the scope of various policies and competes with other policy objectives to secure funding, meaning budgetary accountability is impeded (Simoes & Calatozzolo, 2020).

It is time that the EU starts to walk the walk and not only commit itself to conventions, policies and empty promises. To be a real ‘frontrunner’ for gender equality, countries (and supranational organisations) need to devote money to the cause and commit themselves to developing a budget that is sensitive to the very different needs and priorities of multiple gender identities.


1. European Institute for Gender Equality, 2021, Gender Equality Index 2021: Health, p23

2. Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women (2020). Women in politics 2020 map.

3. UN Women calculations

4. UNCTAD and UN Women, 2020, Gender and Trade: Assessing the Impact of Trade Agreements on Gender Equality, p12

5. UNCTAD and UN Women, 2020, Gender and Trade: Assessing the Impact of Trade Agreements on Gender Equality, p9



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