by Florian Kohlfürst & Johanna Lindner
The third goal of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was to “promote gender equality and empower wome.n. The gender parity target in primary and secondary education was set a deadline in 2005, ten years before the general deadline of the MDGs in 2015. This underlines its importance and demonstrates that the UN considers gender equality a basis for other development goals. In the past decades, gender equality has always been at the top of the agenda of the international community – and not only when it comes to development.
Change is long overdue and the subject has recently come back to the fore also in Europe. When Jean-Claude Juncker was elected president of the European Commission in 2014, he asked Member States to present female candidates and publicly emphasized the importance of having female commissioners. In March 2015, Germany caused a heated discussion in the media by approving gender quotas for company boards. With a view to the topicality of the subject of gender equality, as well as to the creation of a society at the Diplomatic Academy (Students Advocating for Gender Equality), Polemics went to Brussels to interview Angelika Mlinar, who is one of Austria’s 18 Members of the European Parliament, also known to have been personally committed to the cause of gender equality throughout her political career.
Polemics: As a member of the European Parliament, you are actively involved in the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality. Could you tell us a bit about your work therein and where your personal focus lies?
Angelika Mlinar: My main personal focus is on female entrepreneurship. But of course, within the committee one has to adjust to the existing agenda. In the committee itself, I am the head of the [EU] Strategy [for gender equality] 2015-2020. Within this framework I always try to touch on the notion of female entrepreneurship in order to bring a different, very liberal perspective to the table.
Polemics: In a speech you gave when you were elected Vice President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) Group, you mentioned wanting to “empower women through entrepreneurship” to address the gender gap. How would that work in practice?
AM: With my current work and life experience, I have arrived at a point where I have to admit to myself that we will not be able to break the glass ceiling through the system, i.e. through state intervention. I was an entrepreneur myself for a while and I came to realize that business in general is actually gender blind. If we sit opposite each other and what I have to offer you is interesting, you will not care – out of pure self-interest – whether I am a man from Mars or a woman from Venus. Of course this doesn’t say anything about whom companies put on their boards and why; that is mostly politics and a very different topic, but entrepreneurship as such offers a true possibility for empowerment. I also think this is an important element for the EU as a whole, for getting us out of this economic crisis. Female entrepreneurship especially has to be fostered and supported.
Polemics: And what concrete measures would you recommend to reach this goal?
AM: I have recently been to a conference on entrepreneurship organized by ALDE in Barcelona. Sitting on the panel, talking to a female chairman of the board, I realized that what we needed to start with was to organize a discussion with women entrepreneurs from different sectors. It is through meeting these women that I, as a politician, would get real input to be able to formulate the main issues at stake. One thing is for sure: it will be a combination of several factors. Nevertheless, we need to get an overall picture of the current gender-specific barriers. For instance I am almost sure that among women there is a general fear of accountancy and financial matters. These kinds of recurring patterns need to be identified so that we can then find concrete measures to counteract them.
Polemics: As mentioned before, you have recently been elected Vice President of ALDE, and on this occasion you have also stated that you see an urgent need for more Trans-Committee work in the EP – especially since gender equality is a topic that is related to issues dealt with in every committee. What progress could be achieved in this regard so far?
AM: With some of my very outspoken female MEP colleagues from ALDE, we have created an informal network where we meet once a month for breakfast and discuss a range of issues happening in our respective committees. To a certain extent, this provides us with a protected setting, since we are all women, to exchange views. Such “protected spaces” function well, and men have them too for their own purposes. It is often overlooked how important these networks can be and it is a very proactive way of working.
This women’s network has also been highly supportive of my election to ALDE Vice-President. In this function, I have recently been asked to coordinate the communication between the group’s bureau and the ALDE Gen section [ALDE Party Gender Equality Network, editor’s note]. I have been happy to accept that coordination role, especially since in the European Parliament, alike in national parliaments, the real power basis rests within the parliamentary groups and it is by creating synergies between individual sections and the main faction that we can draw on power.
Polemics: The overarching topic of this issue of Polemics will be the Millennium Development Goals, one of which was focused on gender equality. The UN claims that this goal has been achieved, and the next set of goals is to be worked out. Do you have any specific hopes for these goals in the area of Gender Equality? In what way can the EU contribute?
AM: That was also a topic on my recent trip to Addis Ababa [to the Women in Parliament Annual Congress, editor’s note]. I met with NGOs and other stakeholders. The International Planned Parenthood Foundation, for instance, addressed the issue of how to define the new set of goals to replace the MDGs. Of course they do not view the current ones as achieved, but the political tone of the conversation was that the role that the EP can play is considerably bigger than we admit to or maybe even realize. From a pragmatic perspective, for me it seems to make sense to set ambitious goals, so that even if we fall short, we will still have achieved a considerable amount. I personally am no development aid specialist, and I don’t pretend to be, but quite instinctively to me, the main issue seems to be the fight against poverty. Education is an element, but topics like the access to clean water seems to be just as much part of the equation.
Polemics: In other words, address the causes, not just the symptoms…?
AM: I do believe that in the next phase we have to address the concrete causes of the problems. In terms of coordinating and working with the UN: with regards to the EU Strategy 2015-2020 I mentioned before, we insisted on using the same chapter names, for instance, in order to have a conversation where everyone is on the same page. We very much take this need for coordination into account.
Polemics: You are personally very active in the area of women and politics. And it also seems that in the NEOS party, gender equality is actually being “realized” as the latest electoral lists were half men, half women candidates. Yet, there is nothing to be found on this subject in the party’s program. Why is that so?
AM: Well, that is a general problem of liberal parties. Many other parties also have these issues, but we at least talk about them. It is, for us, a dogmatic difficulty. As a liberal, of course I want as few rules as possible, because I assume that the individual generally knows better than the government, so in most cases there is no need for a limitation of my freedom. On the other side, of course, there can be no doubt that rules can, in some cases, be helpful and even necessary.
As we are an intellectually driven party, we are keenly aware of these contradictory values, in this particular case: freedom and gender equality. At the moment one gender has de facto a worse position than the other from the outset, for whatever reason. So how do we solve this? We have introduced a program for promoting young women as a reaction to our current deficit. Only 17% of our members are female – a normal figure for a liberal party, but this does not provide an excuse. And only two members of Parliament are women – now one since I left.
As a party we consider a quota an absolute no-go. My personal position on this question is well-known and very polemical within the party [MEP Mlinar has argued in favor of a quota on several occasions, editor’s note]. Yet eventually I do not think the quota as such is the determinant element; what I care about are the results. What we need is a system that leads to an equality of opportunity. However, that we don’t propose government-mandated rules in our party program is just a logical consequence of the train of thought I just laid out for you. Instead we take active initiatives like the promoting-women program.
Polemics: Finally a last question: SAGE’s first panel discussion was on getting women into politics. You are a woman in politics. From your experience what tips would you give a young woman today who wishes to go into politics?
AM: I think the important thing is not to be afraid. The real tip for a woman: do not be afraid to not be loved. Many of us tend to try to make everything right and to please everyone – but this is something that doesn’t work when you get into politics!