Five European countries have agreed to mend their ways, but two others, Britain and Denmark, could end up before the European Court of Justice, after being charged by the European Commission with sex discrimination.
In an unprecedented dispute which began last year, the European Commission, legal watchdog for the European Community, has charged the majority of its member countries with failing to give fair treatment to women.
Ironically, the worst offenders in the nine- member community, as seen by the commission, are Britain, which is now ruled by a woman prime minister for the first time, and Denmark, where the social status of women is among the highest in the world.
The other countries originally charged by the European Commission include France, West Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. In response to the charges, these five have taken steps to change their laws in areas ranging from housing to equal pay and equal salary allowances.
The spotlight on sex discrimination in national laws comes at a time when industry in several European countries has made considerable progress toward the principle of equal pay. In Britain, for example, manual workers in industry who were male made 41 percent more than their female counterparts in 1972. The difference was reduced to 29 percent by 1977. Other European countries have made similar progress in closing the gap in industrial earnings, and in all of the countries women's overall earnings grew faster than men's over the period.
Despite such economic progress, however, the European Commission found that some laws still discriminated against women. The case against the countries rests on the Treaty of Rome, which was adopted in 1957 as the "constitution" of the community. Article 119 of the treaty outlaws sex discrimination in industry for economic, not altruistic, reasons. The aim was to uphold European capitalism by eliminating distortions in competition on the employment market. Until recently the article was largely ignored in practice. But in the last five years, the community pushed through three directives requiring member states to give equal industrial status to women.
First came a directive in 1975 requiring employers to pay men and women equal money for equal work. A followup directive a year later guaranteed women the right to equitable working conditions and equal access to jobs, vocational training, and promotion. A third directive was adopted in 1978, intended to ensure that women are given social-security benefits similar to those enjoyed by men within six years.
The commission began proceedings against the seven member countries last year when they appeared to have failed to live up to their legal obligations toward working women.
In Britain, the European Commission argues, the concept for equal pay for equal work is given a limited interpretation because the national Equal Pay Act entitles women to equal salaries only when they work at companies which have a job evaluation scheme. The Danes came under scrutiny because their national legislation on equal pay for equal work applies only when men and women are employed in identical jobs and not when they do different work of equal value.
France was sued for having a law discriminating against women in the semi- state sector in housing allocations, Belgium and Luxembourg because some pay allowances there were restricted to employees defined as "heads of households" with women traditionally barred from that category, the Dutch because they excluded women in the public sector from protection under their equal pay act, and the Germans because they had failed to pass federal legislation to guarantee equal pay.
Officially, the commission's legal proceedings against the member governments began when it directed them to explain their positions in the context of their treaty obligations. Some of them have responded quickly.
France has repealed its discriminatory legislation, and the commission has in turn dropped its case. In Germany, where the legal guarantee of equal pay and treatment was ill-defined, the government has now submitted draft legislation to Parliament. The Dutch government has also put forward draft legislation to end discrimination against women in the public sector.
Belgium has drafted a royal decree changing the) present system under which only a married male employee in the public sector benefits automatically from certain family allowances. And the government council in Luxembourg has adopted a draft bill which would qualify females as well as males for "heads of household" allowances and housing subsidies in the civil service, the steel industry, and in banking and insurance.
Only Britain and Denmark have so far failed to take corrective action. The commission, which is responsible for supervising the application of European Community laws, has prepared "reasoned opinions" for the guidance of the reluctant governments and, if they do not respond, it is expected to call a hearing before the European court.
The confrontation could be resolved in a diplomatic compromise with Britain and Denmark being allowed to fall in line with the rest of the community without , however, appearing to suffering a loss of face even at this late stage. The alternative would be lengthy and embarrassing litigation.
The European Commission action is likely to attract the attention of a world conference on women in Copenhagen in July.
The conference, meeting on the eve of the midpoint of the United Nations' Decade for Women (1975-1985), will examine ways to establish a measure of justice between the sexes in a world where, in most cultures, females are less well paid and educated and enjoy far less access to real power than males.
The European Commission effort could show that the means for fighting for women's rights is in the courts, since laws tend to be more liberally worded than administered.
But "laws alone are not enough to improve the status of working women," comments a spokesman for the commission's special bureau here dealing with issues affecting the employment of women.
"Legislation can only provide the background against which people's fundamental attitudes to women within and outside the home must be changed. The people who can do the most to help women are the women themselves."