As the pace of economic recovery in Western Europe quickens, governments have begun to devote increasing attention to an issue conveniently swept under the carpet in harder times: women's rights. Improving the status of European women will not be easy -- attitudes formed generations ago will be more difficult to change than laws -- but the political will to tackle the problem now appears to exist.
In a clear demonstration of that will, government ministers from the 12 European Community countries met last week in The Hague to consider ways of dealing with a range of issues related to society's treatment of women, particulary in the workplace.
It was only a brainstorming session, officials pointed out, so no decisions were made. Yet pledges to accelerate government response to the problem were numerous and genuine.
Women must organize ``to put pressure on governments,'' said France's minister for women's rights, Yvette Roudy, ``and they must protest as loud as they can. It's only then that governments will respond.''
Some governments, in fact, have already responded.
In Belgium, the first-ever government post dealing specifically with social emancipation was recently created. In Britain, the government approved several bills that, according to Employment Minister Ian Lang, will promote equal opportunities for women at work. And in France, the Socialist government is awarding financial incentives to companies that go out of their way to hire women.
But it is in Italy that perhaps the most ambitious government initiative has been launched. Claiming that in rural areas, most of all, men are privileged while woman are discriminated against, Prime Minister Bettino Craxi earlier this year joined forces with industry to set in motion a series of affirmative action projects intended to produce concrete results for women by the end of the year.
One, for example, is meant to remove the constraints that keep unskilled women from becoming trained for professions. Another will try to identify the mechanism that limits the professional development of young female graduates.
It is in business and politics that the inequalities in opportunity between European men and women are most obvious. A recent survey of 420 West European companies by the Brussels-based research organization Management Center Europe, for example, found that no company employed more than three women in senior management positions. Not a single company surveyed in West Germany or the Netherlands had a top female executive.
Other experts, moreover, estimate that on the average West German women earn nearly 70 percent less than their male conterparts (compared with about 30 percent less in the United States).
In politics, female representatives are also few and far between (despite the very visible presence of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher).
By some estimates, fewer than 10 percent of positions of responsibility in government and political parties in Western Europe are filled by women. Belgium's new state secretary for social emancipation, Miet Smet, has urged her colleagues to impose a quota system for women in politics.
A recent progress report on the implementation by EC member countries of EC legislation on equal opportunities for women -- which, in the mid-1970s, effectively swept away most of the legal barriers to women's advancement -- concluded that the process of promoting equal opportunities for women is advancing in Western Europe despite the threats posed by economic crises and budgetary restraints.