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Europe: Court Rules In Favor Of Affirmative Action

Prague, 14 November 1997 (RFE/RL) - The European Court of Justice gave women a boost last week by ruling in favor of affirmative action in public sector jobs. But across the ocean in the United States, affirmative action leaders face an uphill battle on Capitol Hill

The landmark ruling from the Court of Justice set a legal precedent for all 15 countries in the European Union. It upheld the principle of giving hiring and promotional preferences to women as a way of correcting earlier discrimination.

The words of the decision said that men "benefit from deep-rooted prejudices and from stereotypes as to the role and capacities of women." The ruling contrasted with a 1995 ruling in which the court ruled that a quota system introduced by the German state of Bremen violated EU law by giving women preference over equally qualified men.

The court said that women get priority only in job fields where they are underrepresented and only when they are as qualified as the competing male candidates.

Barbara Nolan, the spokesperson for the EU Social Affairs commissioner, said that the ruling was a step in the right direction.

"Traditionally women faced obstacles in the labor market because of stereotyping and prejudices. With this ruling women can claim their rightful place in the labor market," she said.

Nolan said that the ruling encourages countries which were reluctant to pursue affirmative action before, to make affirmative action part of their labor policy.

The court's ruling came two days before the Council of Europe opened its fourth European Ministerial Conference on Equality between Women and Men. The two-day conference in Istanbul focused on the role of men in promoting equality in the workforce.

In an opening press conference, Secretary General Daniel Tarschys said that democratic societies still struggle with equality in the workforce.

"Democracy is still overwhelmingly male...When it comes to political decision-making in some countries, it is almost as if women do not exist," he said.

The Council of Europe released a study last week which showed that women account for 14 percent of government positions in all European countries including Russia. Sweden ranked the highest, with women accounting for 50 percent of the positions, and Cyprus, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania and Slovenia ranked the lowest having no women in government positions.

The study also showed that women account for 14 percent of seat holders in lower or single houses of parliament and 11 percent of seat holders in the upper houses of parliament or senates for all European countries including Russia. Sweden again ranked the highest with women accounting for 40 percent of seat holders in its single house of parliament. Turkey ranked lowest with women accounting for two percent of seat holders in its single house of parliament.

While affirmative action makes small strides in Europe, government leaders in the United States are locked in a fierce struggle over its place in American society. Yesterday, Democrats were forced to block a Senate Judiciary Committee vote to prevent elimination of Bill Lann Lee as a candidate for the nation's top civil rights post.

U.S. President Bill Clinton, who is a Democrat, nominated Lee -- a strong supporter of affirmative action. Republicans say Lee is wrong for the job and that his support of affirmative action will cloud his judgment. Republicans also disagree with Clinton's support of affirmative action. Clinton says he will continue to push Lee's nomination after the Senate returns from winter recess.

And in another blow to affirmative action, the U.S. Supreme Court last week upheld a California state law known as Proposition 209. The law bars California's state and local governments from granting preferential treatment based on race or sex in public sector jobs. California was the first state to outlaw affirmative action programs.

But affirmative action won a small victory last week in Houston, in the U.S. state of Texas, when voters rejected a bid to end it. Voters around the nation watched the results closely since the referendum was the first on affirmative action since Californians voted to ban it last year. President Clinton said he was "profoundly grateful" for the Houston vote.