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GREAT insights Magazine

EU trade policy: Gender-sensitive or gender blind?

December 2016

Viilup, E. EU trade policy: Gender-sensitive or gender blind? GREAT Insights Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 6. December 2016/January 2017.

A better understanding of the gender dimension of trade agreements would contribute to better policy making. The EU has made considerable progress in mainstreaming gender equality in some policy areas, including development policy, but trade policy has been left too much aside.

There are strong arguments for addressing gender-related inequality. The World Bank has convincingly shown in its studies that addressing such inequalities would lead to productivity gains and in general more benefits from trade liberalisation for all, both in OECD and developing countries. The evidence is particularly significant in the case of developing countries. Some experts have estimated that the average per capita growth over 30 years could have been as much as 64% higher in Sub-Saharan Africa, 40% higher in South Asia and 32% higher in MENA, if initial gender enrolment conditions and enrolment gender gaps had mirrored those in East Asia.

Complex trade-gender nexus

That said the trade liberalisation–gender nexus is far from straightforward. Trade liberalisation and the development that comes with it have created positive impacts for women across the world. It is generally believed that trade liberalisation helps to bring women into paid employment. Globalisation and trade liberalisation have – for some women – brought higher incomes, increased economic independence, replaced unpaid work at home or in informal economy and elevated their social status. For example, it has been estimated that the Free Trade Agreements that Mexico signed with North America and the EU created three times as many jobs for women than men.

This has not always been the case, though, as women are far from being a homogenous group. For example, a 2007 research project that involved several Latin American countries – Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay – found that the expansion of international trade into these countries had not resulted in significant incorporation of women to the labour market, nor had barriers been broken down, nor the women’s qualifications been taken advantage of. On the contrary, the trade liberalisation had left women with a double burden. A 2011 resource paper prepared for UNCTAD argued that “globalization and trade liberalization bring complex and often contradictory effects on women’s access to employment, livelihood and income. In some cases, they generate employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for women; in others, they create burdens by disrupting markets in which women operate”.

Hence, while there is some proof that the expansion of international trade may in some cases bring about an increase in paid employment and income, it has not done away with the continued gender bias that manifests itself in job segregation and wage inequalities. The multiple constraints that prevent women from fully benefiting from trade opportunities are well-known and include: a) women’s asymmetric responsibilities, b) limited access to productive resources; c) their reproductive and motherhood roles; d) gendered social norms; e) labour market segregation; f) lower skills and lack of training for better jobs; g) lack of public services to assist women in their household tasks; h) restricted access to information; i) consumption patterns; and j) poverty.

These factors affect women worldwide but – again – women in the developing world tend to be disproportionally disadvantaged. Their barriers to accessing productive resources are particularly high and they tend to be concentrated in specific low-paid economic sectors, such as the clothing and textile industry, subsistence agriculture, low-skill services and also the informal sector.

It is worth noting that, among these constraining factors, many studies point out that women’s education and skill levels seem to be one of the most important in determining how trade liberalisation affects women’s economic and social empowerment, but it is definitely not the only one. Others argue that whether men and women are able to benefit equally from positive effects of trade will depend largely on the implementation or reinforcement of public policies (e.g. availability of childcare, employment policies, support for starting a business, etc.).

Gender in multilateral trade

Gender equality is one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and gender mainstreaming has become an official policy in many international organisations and developed countries. The 1995 Fourth UN World Conference on Women in Beijing made a commitment that the UN members would “ensure that national policies related to international and regional trade agreements do not have an adverse impact on women’s new and traditional economic activities” and “establish mechanisms and other forums to enable women entrepreneurs and women workers to contribute to the formulation of policies and programmes being developed by economic ministries and financial institutions”. No tangible progress has been made in this area, however. In particular, there is as yet no consensus among the World Trade Organization (WTO) members whether gender equality should be explicitly on its agenda.

Gender in EU trade policy: a basic principle

Promoting equality between women and men is one of the underlying values of the European Union (EU), enshrined in its Treaties. According to these, the EU must strive for equality in all its activities. Sex discrimination is further expressly prohibited by the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The EU Member States have ratified the eight Fundamental Conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO) that, together, correspond to core labour standards. These include Conventions 100 and 111 that tackle equal remuneration and non-discrimination. The EU’s internal strategy for promoting gender equality is in a league of its own among other multilateral organisations, many of whom have their own gender equality strategies in place and/or promote gender equality (World Bank, EBRD, UNCTAD, OECD).

The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (Art. 207) stipulates that the “the common commercial policy shall be conducted in the context of the principles and objectives of the Union’s external action” – creating thus a strong link between the EU’s external policies and the trade policy – and the principles guiding the EU’s external action. The European Parliament’s Committee on Development has further repeatedly argued that the EU’s trade policy should comply with Article 208 of the Treaty, which establishes the principle of policy coherence for development by stipulating that “the Union shall take account of the objectives of development cooperation in the policies that it implements which are likely to affect developing countries.”

Not a strategic priority

Mainstreaming gender equality into EU policies is guided by the Strategic Engagement for Gender Equality 2016-2019, a document that covers all EU policies.

The EU’s trade policy should logically come under the thematic priority areas related to promoting gender equality and women’s rights across the world. However, in contrast to the previous 2010-2015 gender mainstreaming strategy, trade policy does not seem to fall under this objective in the new strategy. Instead, trade pops up under the chapter on “Integrating a Gender Equality Perspective into all EU Activities and Policies”, which covers all policies not covered by key actions. Gender equality will be considered in impact assessments and evaluations in line with the Better Regulation principles. The Commission Inter-Service Group on equality between women and men will continue to coordinate work in this area and will issue a report on gender mainstreaming in the European Commission in 2017. Trade is specifically mentioned as one of the areas to be covered by the report. As in the previous 2010-2015 strategy, DG Trade is not tasked with any specific actions (specified in the Annex). In parallel, the European Union Gender Action Plan for 2016-2020 (GAPII), an integral part of the above-mentioned strategy and the main instrument for promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment in the EU’s development policies, includes trade policy in its scope. The measures specified in the annex of this Action Plan include analysing impacts of international trade in connection with trade negotiations.

The wording of the new gender equality strategy and the lack of any concrete commitments in the area of trade speak volumes about the importance allocated to this issue by the Commission. The EU’s Trade for All Strategy – the base document providing vision and direction for the EU’s trade and investment policy – doesn’t mention gender once. It should, therefore, not come as a surprise that gender mainstreaming has not been a high-priority matter for DG Trade. There is a limited awareness among the services of the commitment to implementing gender mainstreaming as an integral part of the Commission’s policymaking.

Brussels-based diplomats and officials working on trade issues have, inter alia, suggested that trade policies are per se gender-neutral, pointed to a lack of political commitment to the issue at the highest political level or deemed the trade policy area too difficult to analyse from the gender perspective for lack of gender-segregated data. In some cases, these members of the practitioner community have questioned whether these aspects belong to EU competence at all and suggested they be dealt with at the level of the EU Member States, who implement trade policy in practice (subsidiarity). All in all, the lack of full understanding of and commitment to gender equality goals seems to be evident at all administrative levels in the Commission.

Increasingly addressed in practice

This does not mean, however, that DG Trade does not deal increasingly with gender equality matters. In practice, gender equality can be considered from two points of view: the normative content of the agreements and trade policy-relevant regulations, and an evaluation of the impact of these agreements and legislative instruments.

In the normative context, the issue of gender equality is dealt with through human rights and labour market provisions. Human rights clauses have been included in the EU’s international trade and cooperation agreements since the 1990s, permitting one of the parties to the agreement unilaterally to suspend its obligations (or to take “appropriate measures”) in the event of human rights violations. In addition to the human rights clauses, the EU trade agreements have since 2008 included sustainable development chapters, which have introduced a new kind of conditionality. Modelled on similar provisions in US and Canadian Free Trade Agreements, these chapters contain provisions that require parties to comply with core labour and environmental standards. A recent ILO paper shows that trade agreements with labour provisions bring measurable improvement in female labour participation, closing of the gender gaps in hiring and also the gender wage gap (see article by Rafael Peels in this issue).

While gender equality matters clearly do not enjoy political priority in DG Trade, the area seems to be slowly evolving as gender issues are increasingly dealt with in practice. The Commission has made an attempt to include an ambitious sustainable development chapter in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations (ongoing). The EU’s proposed chapter includes more detailed provisions than in previous agreements on the Decent Work Agenda, including gender equality (in addition to the objectives of core labour rights, employment creation, social dialogue, and social protection).

Another trade-related tool relevant in this context is the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP), which provides preferential access to the EU’s market for developing countries and also includes human rights provisions.


As to the evaluation of instruments, DG Trade applies both Impact Assessments (IA, Commission-wide tool) and the Trade Sustainability Impact Assessment (SIA, trade-specific tool) in assessing the impacts of a given trade initiative -and both look at social and human rights. The SIAs are the main tools used to address the issue of gender equality in trade negotiations, together with labour and human rights issues. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is the only convention that covers gender issues specifically. Gender equality is specifically included under guidelines on human rights analysis in the SIA Handbook (2016). In reality, the gender component is usually minimal and such analysis is not carried out in a systematic way. This can be partly explained as a chronological evolution, but not wholly – even some of the recent SIAs (e.g. Canada, 2011) are minimal on gender equality analysis. Beyond SIAs, gender impacts would also be dealt with in ex-post evaluation of trade agreements.

The IA assessment guidelines are set out within the Commission’s Better Regulation “Toolbox“. The new guidelines include gender equality considerations with equal treatment and opportunities, non-discrimination, and rights of people with disabilities in the “Fundamental Rights “toolbox. They identify a number of concrete questions that should be considered when carrying out an impact assessment. The proposals for legislation will need to be assessed not only as to whether they have a differential gender impact but also as to how. Another potentially relevant toolbox is the one on “Employment, working conditions, income distribution and inequality”, which also addresses potentially significant impacts on employment, working conditions, income distribution and inequalities.

Too slow progress

Although addressing gender-related inequality has strong economic rationale, progress in this area is still slow, both in the international and in the EU context. On paper, the EU’s gender equality policies are in a league of their own among international organisations. Still, there is a structural issue of implementation not always following the grand political declarations. Only when we see commitment to these issues from the highest levels of management can we see real advancement in the application EU’s gender equality framework.

Nevertheless, the European Commission has made considerable progress in mainstreaming gender equality in some of the EU policy areas, including development policy. The trade policy, however, has been very much left aside in the policy process and gender equality issues are currently not yet dealt with in a systematic manner. That said, it seems to be an evolving area and some examples of good practices exist.

This article summarises the study by I. Viilup. 2015. The EU’s Trade Policy: from gender-blind to gender-sensitive? In-Depth Analysis, DG EXPO/B/PolDep/Note/2015_194, Directorate-General for External Policies, Policy Department, European Parliament.

About the author


Elina Viilup is Coordinator for the International Trade Committee (INTA) and Policy Analyst at the Policy Department, International Trade and Multilateral Issues, Directorate-General for External Policies, European Parliament.

Photo: Women’s Month launch, 31 July 2014. A group of women re-enact the 1956 women’s march to Pretoria protesting against pass laws. Credits: GCIS, via Flickr.

This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 5, Issue 6  (December 2016/January 2017).

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External authors

Elina Viilup