Phase two: broadening the perspective through gender mainstreaming

In the mid-1990s, the Commission introduced the gender mainstreaming approach as a means to raise attention to sex discrimination across the whole policy spectrum at both the European and member state levels, marking the beginning of the second phase. This change in direction — or even “paradigm shift” (Ostner 2000, 34) — was induced by the Commission’s concern about labor shortages. Accordingly, the Commission aimed to improve women’s access to the labor market by removing some of the manifold barriers, such as the lack of childcare facilities (Jenson 2008).

In 1996, the Commission officially launched gender mainstreaming, defining its foundation as “the systematic consideration of the differences between the conditions, situations and needs of women and men in all Community policies and actions” (COM(1996)67final, 5). It identified six areas for future action; among these, employment and the labor market figured most prominently (COM(1996)67 final, 6—10). Furthermore, it envisaged mobilizing political and financial support through the Structural Funds (COM(1996)67 final, 15—20).The Action Program 4, also launched in 1996, used mainstreaming as its “main organizing principle” (Hoskyns 2000, 53). The Amsterdam Treaty (adopted in 1997) further underpinned the Unions commitment to a gendered policy by promoting “throughout the Community ... equality between men and women” (Article 2 TEC, now Article 8 TFEU) and listing a broad set of policy areas where this principle had to be applied (Article 3(2) TEC, now Article 8 TFEU).

The gender mainstreaming approach rested on so-called new modes of governance, that is, steering instruments not reliant on legislation. It encompassed a broad set of nonbinding measures such as raising awareness, providing information, stimulating the commitment and cooperation of the actors actually involved into policy-making, coordinating their performance, and monitoring policy progress (Ahrens 2019;Jacquot 2010; Mazey 2002;Woodward 2012, 96).

During this phase, the Commission also continued to launch legislative initiatives, although success was limited by fierce opposition from national governments. Directives on part-time work, atypical work, and parental leave were subsequently adopted via the European Social Dialogue. This procedure, introduced with the Treaty of Maastricht, allows the social partners — employers’ and workers’ representatives — to negotiate legislative texts, while the Council only formally adopts the results of those negotiations (Falkner et al. 2005, 142—144, 161—164). Furthermore, the Commission succeeded in pushing through a general framework directive for equal treatment in employment and occupation (2000/78/EC) and for equal treatment of men and women regarding the access to and supply of goods and services (2004/113/EC).

The rich literature on the second phase mainly focuses on the gender mainstreaming approach. Scholars have criticized the voluntary approach (Abels and Mushaben 2012), the lack of appropriate incentives (Hafner-Burton and Pollack 2009), and the huge differences in implementation between various policy areas and sectors of intervention as well as member states (e.g. Mergaert and Lombardo 2014). Overall, the second phase was characterized by an anti-discrimination policy going beyond the focus on the employment relationship that had characterized the first phase. New initiatives, however, mostly took the form of soft measures, resulting in a dilution of the Commission’s innovative policy approach and protracted implementation.

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