19th Sep 2019


EU ruling is a victory for women's rights

  • Women and men should have equal pay and insurance rates (Photo: Magnus Fröderberg /

Tuesday's (1 March) ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) concerning sex discrimination in insurance premiums has caused a lot of confusion, with attention being particularly focused on potential rises in car insurance premiums for women.

It might therefore come as a surprise that the European Women's Lobby (EWL), representing more than 2,500 women's associations from across the EU, supported the legal challenge to the 'opt out' clause for insurances in the Council's Directive 2004/113 on gender equality in access to and supply of goods and services, and is delighted at the result.

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In its ruling, the ECJ confirms that there can be no exceptions to fundamental rights in the EU. For the EWL, this represents a victory for fairness, common-sense, solidarity and the rule of law, which will have substantial direct and indirect impacts on the quality of women's lives in Europe.

The EWL has consistently argued that the use of sex as a basis for the calculation of premiums should be forbidden – as is the criterion of race – since these factors are beyond the control of the individual concerned.

Indeed, there are other factors linked to lifestyle that play a more important role, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, stress factors and health awareness, which might be considered legitimate factors in risk assessment. For example, being involved in fewer accidents is a much more objective and relevant criterion than sex for the calculation of car insurance premiums.

In response to the claims made by insurance companies that costs would rise across the board, for both women and men, the EWL maintains that they are illogical and unfounded. This ruling only means a redistribution of the costs and benefits of insurance services, and consumers should be on guard against insurers using the legislation as an excuse to raise average premiums.

The judgement is particularly important to ensure women's basic rights in a context of an ageing population and increasing pressure on state pension systems. At the moment in the EU, women are offered much less favourable conditions in private pension schemes compared to men because of their higher average life expectancy. With this ruling, private pension and savings schemes will have to comply with the principle of gender equality in the same manner as state schemes.

Discrimination based on sex in insurances, along with a pay gap averaging 17.6 percent and substantial savings gaps due to women spending long periods outside the labour market for unpaid care work, have resulted in a situation where 21 percent of women aged 65 and over live in poverty. Recent research in the UK found that women's retirement savings were on average two thirds those of their male counterparts.

The ECJ decision could also justify challenges to the two other principal exceptions to the Directive designed to combat discrimination based on sex in the access to and supply of goods and services. The EWL has always maintained that the exclusion of education and media from the scope of EU gender equality legislation is an anomaly which is contrary to EU primary law. Now that the ECJ has confirmed that such exceptions cannot be justified, we are confident that legislation and practices affecting these two sectors which are central to achieving equality between women and men will soon change for the better.

Leanda Barrington-Leach is a communications and media officer with the Brussels-based European Women's Lobby


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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