Gender equality comes to a standstill amidst Spain’s economic crisis


By Lucy Smith


On Saturday we celebrated International Women’s Day, and the week before that was the European Equal Pay Day. Gauging public opinion from social media alone, it’s clear that many people think these days are redundant. The eternally unfunny question, “When is International Men’s Day?” was rampant on Twitter (as Gawker pointed out, it’s on November 19 It’s easy to look at the big advancements of women’s rights – voting rights, improved labour laws – and pronounce that sexism is dead. But doing so ignores the inequalities that are harder to detect, but still exist, in today’s society. As Hillary Clinton put it a few years back: women’s rights are “the great unfinished business of the 21st century.”

On his second term, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero passed a sweeping gender equality act. His cabinet in 2008 consisted of nine women and eight men. Since then gender equalityhas fallen victim to the economic crisis. (Photo: Rodriguez Zapatero and some members of his government in 2011. Courtesy of the Ministry of the President of the Spanish government 2010.)

On his second term, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero passed a sweeping gender equality act. His cabinet in 2008 consisted of nine women and eight men. Since then gender equalityhas fallen victim to the economic crisis. (Photo: Rodriguez Zapatero, center, and some members of his government in 2011, courtesy of the Ministry of the President of the Spanish government.)

That couldn’t be truer in Spain. After a few years in the early 21st century of sweeping advancements for women, progress seems to have come to a standstill in the workplace. As a newcomer to Spain I was surprised to hear that, despite its reputation as a progressive place for women, the pay gap has actually widened in recent years. A 2012 EU study showed it had gone from 13% in 2006 to 17.8% that year. And that’s not even mentioning unemployment. The economic crisis has had wide-ranging ramifications in Spain, and sadly one of those has been a rollback for gender equality. It’s not something I’ve come in touch with personally, but for anyone walking through the streets of Madrid, it’s painfully clear that women aren’t having an easy time. Struggling women try to sell handmade jewellery in cafes and trains, and leave cards with stories of sick husbands and children in hope of receiving a few euros from strangers.


What is the gender pay gap?

The term gets thrown around a lot, but what does it actually mean? The European Union defines the pay gap as “the relative difference in the average gross hourly earnings of women and men within the economy as a whole.” Which means currently Spanish women are earning an average of 17.8% less than their male counterparts per hour. The pay gap varies widely across Europe – from the smallest in Slovenia (2.3%) to the widest in Estonia (27.3%), as of 2012. There are other ways of determining the pay gap too – the Spanish Instituto Nacional de Estadística website contains information about yearly earnings, showing that in 2011 women’s salary were 22.55% lower than men’s, as opposed to 21.87% in 2008. Whatever the source, it’s clear that equality hasn’t quite been grasped in the Spanish workforce.



Why is the gap widening in Spain?

Spanish flamenco artist performing at a tablao in Madrid.

Spanish flamenco dancer performing at a tablao in Madrid.

Put simply, the economic crisis seems to be responsible for the regression in pay equality. At first the crisis took away jobs held mainly by men in the construction sector, but consequent austerity measures meant jobs in education, health and social services were cut – a majority of which were held by women. Nearly 881,000 women have lost their full-time jobs since the crisis, bringing unemployment amongst women up to 27.61%. Obviously this explains unemployment, but not the pay gap – the explanations for that are a little harder to determine.

One possibility is that the gap is widening because women are being pushed from jobs in the public to the private sector, where wage discrimination is more common and harder to identify. Another is that women are being forced to take up more part-time work, which can lead to reductions in hourly pay. Studies in Spain have shown that the gender gap is higher amongst people with university degrees, and as more women are now receiving higher-level education this could in part explain the widening gap. In any case, the causes are complex and ambiguous. If you want to learn more you can read relevant studies here ( and here (



What’s being done about it?

Unfortunately, one of the effects of the economic crisis is that gender equality has been pushed off the political agenda in Spain. Associate Professor María Luz Rodríguez, of the University of Castilla-La Mancha believes this is the most harmful effect of the crisis for women. “Without a public discussion of the need for further progress towards equality, and without the political will to do so, it will doubtlessly be much harder to walk down that road. We can even move backwards, as has been the case with the regulation of the reconciliation of family and professional life,” Rodríguez wrote in one report.

The European Commission is working towards closing the gender pay gap, with an official “Strategy for equality between women and men.” One of their initiatives is the ‘Equality Pays Off’ project, which provides gender training for companies and organises exchanges of good practices on actions aiming to foster gender equality. The Commission also has plans to deliver a report with recommendations “to ensure more effective application of the principle of equal pay and, in particular, the transparency of pay categories.” Hopefully this will have some success, because the current strategy appears to be failing Spain.

There’s also the good news that the economic crisis seems to be lifting – and hopefully, as in the past, economic improvements will also mean progress for gender equality. But it won’t come easily – as always, equality has to be worked and fought for, to come to full fruition.



Featured image: Peggy & Marco Luchmann-Anke from Pixabay

Photo of flamenco dancer by Dtom, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0