Polish-German perspectives on implementing equality and diversity on the local level


As the examples of Poland and Germany show, European efforts to support progress in the field of gender equality policies should rather not overtly emphasize existing differences, but help to find ways to supplement each other. Whereas the look through the – often judgemental – prism of differences is often reproducing detrimental stereotypes, the search for possibilities of cooperation, exchange of best practices and mutual inspiration has the potential to create an upward dynamic on all sides.  

After various attempts in past years, thanks to the cooperation of the Capital City of Warsaw, the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Warsaw and the Heinrich Böll Foundation the First Conference of Equal Opportunities Officers from Polish and German cities took place in Warsaw. On September 14th, 2018, representatives of cities like Berlin, Düsseldorf, Pforzheim and Stuttgart as well as Częstochowa, Gdańsk, Łódź, Poznań, Słupsk and Warsaw discussed their experiences, hopes and challenges connected with two distinct, somewhat different, but definitely complementary instruments meant to implement effective antidiscrimination policies in local self-governmental structures throughout Europe.

The European Charter for Equality of Women and Men in Local Life with its specific focus on Gender Mainstreaming is functioning since 2006 and has been strongly promoted by the Council of European Municipalities and Regions. A majority of its almost 1.700 signatories so far comes from Southern European countries. Activities under the Charter are informed by the understanding that on the way to achieving equality of women and men as a fundamental right it is necessary to address multiple discrimination and disadvantages, e.g. by the balanced participation of women and men in decision-making, the elimination of gender stereotypes and integrating the gender perspective into all activities of local and regional government as well as establishing properly resourced action plans and programmes.

The European Diversity Charters, on the other hand, is a written commitment that can be signed by any company, organization or public administration, regardless of its size, that wishes to ban discrimination in the workplace and makes a decision to work towards creating diversity. This endeavour had originally been initiated by representatives of French civil society in 2004. After creating a European platform integrating various local and regional charters it has been inspiring many more all over the continent. The Polish Charter, which is lately experiencing a rising number of local government entities among its signatories, is coordinated by the Responsible Business Forum.

Naturally the conference was not meant to decide which one of the two presented charters is the better one – its aim was to discuss their respective most advantageous characteristics and identify aspects and tasks of antidiscrimination policies to which they most adequately relate.  Besides, it was a good occasion to hear practitioners of local politics confirm the old wisdom that it takes more to ensure effective antidiscrimination strategies than just creating good legislation and care for its effective implementation. Cities and local communities, much more than the state level, have a concrete impact in spheres such as culture, social affairs and sports, which spur the continuous process of creating and reformulating desirable or contested social patterns and practices.

Although the character of the Diversity Charter is a bit more declaratory and incentives-based, both documents help to rethink the role of cities not only as policy-makers, but as employers, service-providers, purchasers and investors also. Due to the structured support mechanisms they offer, one important advantage is that they can be used on various developmental stages, i.e. for those who would just like to find a good starting point and proper guidance for their future antidiscrimination policies as well as for more advanced communities.

In contrast to business, however, cities cannot create and select their own inner diversity, but have to deal with it. Besides, even in the case of elaborated national antidiscrimination legislation, there is often a lack of strict legal sanctions for subjects defying its norms. Therefore it is important to choose a strategic approach to antidiscrimination measures, start with policy fields with a sound probability of tangible success and secure the backing of both city administration and local city councilors. Politics and administration have to make equality and diversity their priority, as equal opportunities officers can only educate, inspire and advice, sometimes co-create recommendations for adaptations in interconnected local policy fields, yet substantial and lasting effects are created by the day-to-day work of bigger structures.

Among the best practices exchanged, a few “eye-openers” for better showing the complexity and multidimensionality of antidiscrimination policies were explicitly praised. One of them is a tool called gender budgeting, a visualization of public budgetary spending in gender equality terms which has been used in the capital city of Berlin for 15 years now. It helps to show who are the beneficiaries of concrete investments and subsidies in a given policy area, e.g. in sport, where traditionally the vast majority of funds goes to projects with an overtly male target group. On the other hand, it is not rare for a closer look on health care to reveal that a blind eye is turned to male health risk factors (cf. the enormous gender imbalance in suicide cases).  

Many more concrete examples were discussed during the meeting, e.g. the nomenclature of public streets (a hot topic among Polish women’s rights activists at the moment), the role of (increasingly foreign) caregivers in homes for the elderly (the case for countries like Germany now, but a future reality for Poland as well) or tools to control candidates for local public offices (by campaign milestone packages). Nevertheless, the most important joint message was to frame the need for creating support for effective antidiscrimination policies in terms of prevention, as a profitable investment of public money in the future of local communities. A future based on the increasingly full equality of men and women, which is including all inhabitants just as they are and does attempt to match them to the expectations and interests of the majority population.

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