Interview: Anna Vleeshouwers, feminist from Belgium, on achieving gender equality at the labour market

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I engage with feminism on three different levels: academically as a student of the Flemish interuniversitarian master’s degree Gender and Diversity, professionally as an employee at a gender and feminism expertise centre and not in the least, politically as an activist. To me, these three aspects interlock and unequivocally inform one another. A white, male philosopher once said knowledge without practice is useless and practice without knowledge is dangerous. Even though I agree with him, he doesn’t mention power, which is crucial for realising social change. This is why we need activism. History has taught us that rights are never ‘granted’ out of generosity or sudden remorse. Rather, every social victory, every right was acquired by mass mobilisation. And since we now live in a time where acquired rights – be it human rights or individual rights – are increasingly under threat rather than expanded, I think we urgently need a strong, comprehensive social movement based on knowledge, practice and activism. A movement that connects all emancipatory fights for justice: from gender justice to climate justice, racial justice to class justice. Even though individual experiences of oppression are never the same, the structural mechanisms of systems of oppressions are very alike, and often interlocking. This should be the focus. The shared goal of eliminating any form of violence, oppression and injustice can unite us into a strong social movement, that will necessarily be intersectional, international and inclusive – or it won’t be at all.

In Russia, hundreds of professions are still banned for women, although from 2021 some of the restrictions will be lifted, but women will still not be able to work in many areas. Why do you think that any prohibitions should be lifted? How can lifting restrictions on women’s employment improve their situation?

From an anti-discrimination viewpoint, I think a mere formalistic interpretation of the equality principle suffices to defend that all people should be treated equally, regardless of their gender or sex. The right to work, to freely chose employment, is foreclosed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These are basic rights that enjoy an international consensus. If a country does not comply, it is essential the appropriate supranational institutions intervene and see upon its enforcement. Since human rights constitute the bare minimum of legal protection that the international community agreed upon, the question why bans should be lifted should not even be raised.

Why this is of great importance, on the other hand, goes beyond the ethical argument of equal treatment and the legal protection against discrimination. To curtail a woman’s right to work, is obstructing her economic independence. Being economically dependent puts women at risk of exploitation, abuse and violence. However, I don’t proclaim that work is a necessary prerequisite for emancipation, but the right to freely chose if one wants to work, and if so, what profession… That is essential. Emancipation is about the right to self-determination. It’s about freedom to choose what’s best for yourself. Deciding for someone else what they can or cannot do, infantilises them. It is paternalistic to say the least. So looking at this topic in a broader sense, I think obstructing women in their right to work, contributes to harmful, patriarchal attitudes that don’t consider women as equals – deserving as much respect, freedom and autonomy – to men. It is things like these that form the root of a harmful mentality that can lead to all kinds of injustices, like physical or sexual abuse,

Considering the whole world throughout entire history? I can imagine there were many exclusions, but I can’t so easily pin-point as to what, where and when those would have been. I can imagine class and race were often also important signifiers in defining which women could practice what jobs. Profession exclusions were certainly never solely gendered, but also racialised. In fact, I think they still are, but in the case of Belgium this is not formally so, which makes it all the harder to fight the actual racialised and gendered segmentation of the labour market. That being said, I also think of white, feminist history in which white, middle-class and/or liberal women claimed the right to work whereas for many women at different intersections work was a daily reality and the labour market a site of oppression. We should also bear in mind that for a long time not working was a class privilege, that mostly served to shine off on the man. Back in the day, families were only thought to be heterosexual and lived by strict genderroles, ordering a woman to a domestic life while the man went out to work to provide for his family. Having a job that paid him enough to sustain a family was a sign of prestige. A housewife was a commodity for men to boost their success.

There’s probably lots to tell on this subject but why don’t I tell you about one well-known case in my country about a woman being excluded from exercising the profession of her desire (and study!), even though there was no explicit legal exclusion. This was the case of Marie Popelin, a now very famous case referred to as “the affaire Popelin”. Popelin was the first woman in Belgium to obtain a doctorate in law, but she was denied accession to the bar. This happened at the end of the 19th century. She continued to advocate for women’s right to qualitative education and stressed that mere accession to educational institutes would not further women’s emancipation as long as other legal adjustments were not made. Like I mentioned before, what is the point of having an education if you can’t put it to use? Luckily Marie Popelin did put her degree to use, but more in a political and activist way, to the horror of the male administration of the court that had dealt with her appeal. Marie Popelin put her juridical knowledge to use, spread awareness among women, founded the Ligue Belge du Droit des Femmes, an important women’s organisation at the time, organised international feminist conferences… And in no time, Marie Popelin had become the main catalyst in the Belgian women’s movement. She transformed it into an organised, political movement in the fight for universal suffrage and admission to all degrees and professions.

In your opinion, what measures can contribute to the achievement of gender equality in the world of work?

In Belgium, the gender pay gap persists until today and lingers at a staggering 20%. This is largely due to women disproportionally often working in part time employment. This has a huge impact on their salary as well as their pension, and thus ultimately on their economic independence. Most politicians and mainstream media frame this as a voluntary choice individual women make, but it is not really if there are economic, social and legal factors structurally weighing in that decision. For example, women are overrepresented in low-paid professions that demand a lot of flexibility and have worse working conditions. Think about the service sector. The unpaid reproductive work that women traditionally did before entering the labour market is now almost entirely outsourced to migrant women of colour in the service sector. Men in heterosexual families didn’t start doing their fair share of the load. We can’t speak of increased gender equality. Instead, the inequality between women increased! While white, middle-class women have the privilege to feel emancipated, it is women of colour carrying the burden of this supposed emancipation. Aside from improving working conditions and raising wages and pensions above the poverty threshold, I also want to advocate for a thirty-hour working week with preserved salary. People would have more time for reproductive work at home, which will contribute to social equality between women, but also between women and men. Studies have time and again prove the thirty-hour week is not a utopian idea. As a second measure, parental leave needs to be extended with preserved salary for both parents, regardless of their gender. By granting men only ten days of parental leave, like is the case in Belgium, government endorse unequal, traditional genderroles that push women in the role of primary carer and men in the role of primary provider. Moreover, for the sake of the child, parents should get to divide the joy as well as the work that comes with the birth of a new child.

Tell us what steps have been taken to expand women’s rights in your country and how has this helped?

In the domain of work and economic independence? Since 2012 we have legal gender quota for the board of directors in listed companies. This means any gender needs to constitute at least one third of board. This is in important step towards eliminated horizontal stratification, but let’s not forget that this law cannot control who actually has the final say in important decision-making processes. Quota are still highly debated in Belgium, as I suppose they are elsewhere, but they have proven to be efficient. In an ideal world we would not need any, but they are temporary measures to correct current – and persistent – injustice.

In fact, I would advocate for more quota, and not only on the basis of gender. Take the European Union, whose slogan so elegantly celebrates diversity. “United in diversity”, right? Well, the harsh truth is that most of the people of colour working at EU institutions work in maintenance instead of in the powerful positions. Only 1% of the employees at EU institutions come from a racial or ethnocultural minority background. That is a gigantic democratic deficit if you look at Europe’s reality today. To ensure proper, democratic political representation, quota are simply needed. They are temporary measures to correct current injustices. If we truly care about democracy, democratic political representation should be non-negotiable. Power relations should reflect society and power should be distributed equally.

Quota have already proven their efficiency in Belgium with regards to gender. Since gender quota became legally binding for parties’ electoral lists in 2002, women’s representation in parliament has improved. From more or less 25% in 1999, we have arrived at over 40% in 2014 and 43% in 2019. However, this improvement was not translated into more female ministers (who hold more political power). As of 2019, four of the thirteen federal ministers are female. In the previous legislature, there were only three. In sum, quota have enforced more gender equality which is why we should hold on to them and extend their use.

Anna Vleeshouwers, Belgium