Gender inequality in Spain: glass ceiling or steel barrier?

From the law of succession to domestic violence, from political representation to the judiciary and the boardroom, from pay to reproductive rights, gender equality in Spain remains a distant goal

Liz Cooper
28 July 2014

It is a hard to believe fact that Spanish women are constitutionally considered second class when it comes to ruling their country. Still. It is written in to the Constitution that the law of succession is based on male primogeniture, the throne passed to the eldest offspring but with preference given to men (“con preferencia de los varones”). Felipe V1 of Spain was proclaimed King in June 2014 after the abdication of his father although he is the youngest of three children born to the now ex-King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia. The two elder children were female. In section 14 of the 1978 Constitution, alongside the law on male primogeniture, it states that all Spaniards are equal under the law and cannot be discriminated against for reasons of birth, race, sex, religion, opinion or any other personal or social condition or circumstance. That is unless, confusingly and with a certain irony, they happen to be female members of a royal family in a constitutional monarchy.

Between the announcement of the abdication and the proclamation of Felipe as King -  seventeen days - there were a number of demonstrations calling for a Republic, and/or a referendum, but there was no clamour in the streets to change the law of succession; seemingly there is little public interest. The Spanish Government has said it is in favour of a change, but that it is a “complicated” process. Perhaps it is: it took the UK Monarchy over 400 years to change the law of male primogeniture, finally achieved in 2011.

That the gap continues, between the laws to promote gender equality and the reality of life for women, is what characterises attempts to alter the balance of power between the sexes in Europe, where the principle of equal pay was established as early as 1957 in the Treaty of Rome.  Today although European agencies tend to congratulate themselves on their successes and legislation is legion, serious differences still exist. Recent European research for example puts the average pay for women in the UK at 20.1% less than men, with Spain at the European average of 16.2% less.

In the survey on attitudes to domestic violence, undertaken by the Centre for Investigation (CIS) on behalf of the Government of Spain in 2012, 72% of women and 49% of men agreed that there were considerable inequalities between men and women; 98% considered the use of domestic violence to be wrong but 35% assumed the victim to be a consenting partner to the violence.  Attitudes die hard.

Although most Spanish women were given the vote in the Second Republic in 1931, the struggle for equality re-started from a very low base in the 70s when divorce was impossible, women could not open bank accounts, obtain a passport, or buy property without the permission of their husbands in Franco’s Spain. The socialist Government of the new democracy in 1982, was keen to change the balance and set up the Institute for Women in 1983 which became part of the governing agenda in all the regional autonomous communities, specifically to promote equal rights. There has been a slow but continuous improvement in the situation for women since the Franco years but actual equality is still a distant goal.

With the election of a new socialist government in 2004 under Rodrigues Zapatero, the next seven years produced a wave of crucial laws related to women’s rights. The Law on Gender Equality in 2007 was supported by all parties in parliament except the conservative Partido Popular (PP) which is now running the country.  The creation of a Ministry for Equality in 2008 was perhaps the most dramatic move, plus new laws and specialist courts on gender violence, legalization of same sex marriage, a more liberal abortion law, gender mainstreaming in all public organizations, a new powerful dependency law, and more.

Most of that legislation was not valued at the time, as the economic crisis took hold from 2008 contributing to the downfall of the Zapatero Government in 2011. Conservative ideology does not appear to approve of government that puts gender equality at the top of the agenda. “Equality” has become an add-on to the responsibilities of the Minister for Health and Social Services in the current conservative Government of Spain.

The Zapatero legislation is being dismantled amidst budgets cut, with a 47% reduction in support for gender equality. In the case of domestic violence, by late November 2013, two years after the Partido Popular won the elections, budgets had been cut by up to 30%. Parliamentary discussion on the subject is still seriously lacking in spite of the fact that 35 women have been killed in the first 6 months of this year by their partners or ex partners.

In the political field a woman has yet to be a presidential candidate.  In the latest elections that have just taken place for a new leader of the socialist party, the PSOE, the party that stresses its commitment to women’s rights, two women originally put their names forward but both withdrew before the elections, leaving the race for leader to three male candidates. In the conservative party, the male leader and president of the party for the last 10 years Mariano Rajoy was designated by the outgoing male president José Maria Aznar and confirmed by the party’s National Congress

For a brief moment under the Zapatero government positive discrimination achieved a 50/50 split between men and women in the Cabinet, now reduced to 30%, and the highest percentage of women MPs in Europe, over 36%, drawing a lot of international attention in particular to the Minister of Defence, Carmen Charcón, who was pregnant at the time. That era has gone. Today, although far more educated women than men are still leaving Spanish universities annually they do not appear in the same ratio as men on the executive boards of private companies, public institutions and the very government itself. The modern equivalent of the so-called glass ceiling in Spain looks more like the steel barriers erected in the 90s with spikes and interlocking cables topped with razor wire still used to keep would-be immigrants out of the Spanish cities in Morocco. 

The first woman to become a judge was admitted in 1977. Nearly 40 years later numbers have changed significantly with approximately half of all judges and magistrates being women. However at the top, it is the same story with few women getting across the steel barrier to achieve real power in the judicial system. The ruling committee of the Judiciary, the CGPJ, which appoints members to the Supreme Court, is and has always been dominated by men. The board has 21 members, and in 2008 7 were women. It remains slow to consider positive action to enable women to reach the top.

In a country where 71% of the population define themselves as catholic, there are no women in top ecclesiastical jobs. The Catholic Church still refuses to ordain women. A recent poll taken of catholic opinion over 12 countries found that 78% of Catholics in Spain supported the idea that women should be ordained. Vatican misogyny continues to erode women’s rights with a combination of extreme right wing political philosophy and dogma, irrespective of the opinions of the majority of Catholics across Europe.

The Zapatero Government made some progress in attempts to reduce the power of the Church over government, its greatest success against catholic dogma being the Abortion Law of 2010 in which women were given the legal right to decide on an abortion, without interference from the state, for up to 14 weeks of their pregnancy. In 2009 the Episcopal Conference of the Catholic Church in Spain threatened to excommunicate those ministers who voted for the law, making laughable nonsense once again of the separation of church and state.

In spite of surveys showing that up to 85 % of the electorate do not wholly support the current Government’s reforms to the abortion law, which will destroy a woman’s right to decide, that the reforms will become law is almost certain. There have been continuous protests both within Parliament and without; as a result the Government is now making some adjustments to the section on malformation of the foetus, which in the original reforms was not included as a reason for abortion. By tinkering with the wording, they will in effect make that possible without actually changing the planned new law, which states that only in cases of rape, or extreme danger to the life of the mother can a legal abortion be performed. It is expected to be debated in Parliament after the summer recess but whatever the views of Parliament the Government can use its absolute majority to push the law through when it chooses.

So how will the new Queen-consort perform in a country which seems set to take gender equality and women’s rights back a hundred years? An ex-television reporter and journalist who once reported from Iraq, she has, during her 10 years of marriage, given birth to two daughters, had her nose fixed, managed to keep herself out of the royal scandals, lost a lot of weight and now appears similar to any other member of the rich and increasingly unnecessary strain of European royalty. The notion that she might fight for gender equality seems unlikely. But equally unlikely that ex-Queen Sofia, who has publicly kept smiling, affable and charming for over 50 years of marriage to a womanizing, elephant-hunting king, will be her model. Leticia Ortiz is after all a middle class educated woman with a successful career behind her who could, if she so chose, use her experience and position to help Spanish women in their struggle to further bridge the gender gap, still so wide and apparently unfathomable.




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