Gender equality is a fundamental human right. It assumes that all men and women have equal opportunities, contribute equally to cultural, political, economic and social progress, and enjoy all of the benefits of a single community in one society.
However, even though we live in the 21st century, gender inequality exists in all societies today and remains rooted in social structures and traditional divisions of labour. Its importance and value are inextricably linked to economic progress, social cohesion and democratic advancement.
The EU Gender Equality Strategy outlines actions that will bring Europe significantly closer to gender equality by 2025, with the main goal of ensuring that women and men have equal opportunities to thrive and are free to pursue their chosen life paths. As candidates or potential candidate countries for EU membership, Western Balkan countries are working to adopt and harmonise laws with European strategies and establish necessary gender equality mechanisms, but the status of gender equality policy implementation remains a challenge.
Global analyses and reports on the status of women confirm the presence of systemic gender inequality in Western Balkan countries. Women are implicitly held responsible for the task of caring for others, have a more difficult time finding paid employment and education, are less involved in decision-making and have less economic power. All of this contributes to the fact that, despite assertions to the contrary, women continue to face social disadvantages.
„One of the primary causes of inequity in the labour market is traditional gender prejudice and stereotypes.“
Women’s labour force participation remains low and various causes have been identified, including prejudice and stereotypes about gender roles in society, workplace discrimination, education, gender-blind economic policies and difficulties in balancing private and professional life.
One of the primary causes of inequity in the labour market is traditional gender prejudice and stereotypes that perpetuate the belief that men and women should play different roles in society. Such assumptions limit individual choice, resulting in untapped potential and talent, skill gaps and lower pay for jobs perceived to be ‘women’s work’. Women are discouraged from entering the labour force due to prevalent social and cultural beliefs. Stereotypes influence what women do and how they are treated, which affects the subjects they choose in school, limiting their future job and career options on top of contributing to stereotyped views in the home. Both continuous formal and informal education may result in a positive shift in the prevailing narrative.
Discrimination is prevalent in the labour market and a major cause of women’s unequal social status. It is found in the job search, workplace, earnings and, most commonly, pregnancy and maternity policies. Although workplace discrimination exists in the most developed countries, it is more pervasive and damaging in patriarchal societies such as those found in the Western Balkans. Improving employment protection systems and preventing the discrimination of women is a necessary condition for guaranteed right to equality. Thus, continuous monitoring and harmonisation of the legal framework with international standards are required.
The ability of education to meet its development goals is severely hampered by patriarchal divisions of responsibilities and interests. The disparity shapes women’s future opportunities. Imposed labels limit women’s educational options by designating specific areas of the labour market as suitable or unsuitable for women, discouraging them from pursuing education and employment in a broader range of sectors and opportunities. Gender segregation in education is manifested by a higher concentration of girls in areas of care, health and education. Educational choices are at the heart of later labour market inequity, and more emphasis should be placed on improving the quality of education at all levels, reforming curricula, providing more extra-curricular activities that address gender issues and so forth.
„Imbalance between private and professional life contributes to high levels of female labour force inactivity“
Specific gender components are not recognised or mentioned in most programmes aimed at improving employability, nor is the gender gap between young women and young men in the labour market recognised. This is mostly because gender-based statistics and data are not available. Gender-blind economic and employment policies routinely perpetuate the gender divide by benefiting men more than women, particularly when it comes to access to economic opportunities, incentives and stimuli, as well as policies that promote job creation and economic growth. Incorporating a gender perspective into employment policies is key to addressing the underlying causes of labour market inequalities.
Imbalance between private and professional life contributes to high levels of female labour force inactivity, as well as an impediment to career advancement. Most inactive women stopped working or never looked for work because they wanted to start a family. A lack of childcare facilities, as well as the requirement to perform household chores, are both impediments to professional development and advancement.
Economic thinking prevails, frequently failing to recognise the economic value of unpaid work and care for others, resulting in male-dominated macroeconomic policies that harm women and exacerbate structural inequalities. To create a push factor for women to join the labour force, comprehensive programmes and support measures for women’s employment, as well as continuous empowerment of women, are required. It is time to take concrete steps to address the root causes of women’s unemployment and move towards policies that empower women from all walks of life and ensure that their potential is not lost.