Equality is enshrined as a principle at the heart of the European Union, yet only about one-third of Euro MPs are women. Gender discrimination remains widespread in Europe.

Here European Commission Vice-President Margot Wallstrom explains why she is campaigning to get more women into senior EU positions. This is part of a viewpoint series ahead of the June European elections.

I am lucky to come from a country - Sweden - where gender equality is practically taken for granted.

I was first elected as an MP at the age of 24 and held ministerial positions in Sweden before being nominated twice as a European commissioner. It would be nice to think that this is the norm in all democracies, but unfortunately this is far from being the case. In Europe, for example, a fair representation of women in politics and business remains an unachieved dream.

I have been fortunate enough to have had a seat at tables where decisions are made, but in the governments of EU countries, only 24% are women, and most of them are in charge of cultural or social issues. Not even one in four members of national parliaments are women.

`Dysfunctional` EU family

When it comes to the top EU jobs the picture is even more bleak: out of 12 European Parliament presidents, only two have been women, and there has never been a female president of the European Commission. When you look at the "family photos" from European summits you see a very strange, "dysfunctional" family. Most of the time they`re all men except for [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel!

I have also been fortunate to have had a husband who was willing and able to help out with the family. I still haven`t seen my kids as much as I would like though, and for many other women going into politics is not an option because of the long hours and the regular travelling.

In order to create a level playing field there must at least be decent childcare systems in place. This is not the case in most countries. (Attitudes are also interesting - during the US election campaign some people questioned whether Sarah Palin could be the vice-president because she had five children. Would that ever be asked of a man?)

Female perspective

Let me be very clear: I am not arguing that women are better than men. What I am arguing is that representative democracy which excludes 52% of the population from the decision-making tables is not real democracy at all. It is in the interest of society as a whole - women and men - that we be represented equally.

Why? Because women bring a different view of the world to the table - they have different experiences, they see things differently and they act differently.

An example (to generalise): to a man, the word "security" often means tank battalions and missile defence systems. To a woman it can mean access to education and clean drinking water for children. And isn`t it perhaps telling in the current financial crisis that the (male) prime minister of Iceland and the (male) CEOs of that unfortunate country`s banks have been replaced recently by women?

To quote the Business Editor of the Observer, Ruth Sunderland: "Women are the single biggest - and least acknowledged - force for economic growth on the planet. This is not a claim made by rampant feminists, but by the Economist, which suggests that over the past few decades women have contributed more to the expansion of the world economy than either new technology or the emerging markets of China and India. But surprise, surprise: technology and emerging markets have gleaned acres of coverage in the business press; the potential of women, seen as a `soft` issue, has not."

Gender discrimination of all kinds is banned in the EU treaties, which also include the principle of equal pay for equal work. Nonetheless, it might surprise you to know that women in Europe today are still paid on average close to 16% less than men for the same job. At the speed at which the wage gap between men and women is closing, it will take another 70 years before equality is reached.

The Commission has proposed legislation to reinforce the right to maternity leave and has recommended action to provide more and better childcare facilities. We have also begun talks with employers and trade unions on parental leave. To tackle the problem of violence, particularly against women and children, the EU finances the work of NGOs and local authorities in protecting the victims of violence. To encourage and help more women to set up businesses, the Commission supports the EU network of female entrepreneurs.

With a solid implementation throughout the EU of our policies and recommendations, I believe Europe can lead by example.

A more concrete opportunity for change will present itself soon, when European Parliament elections take place at the beginning of June.

I and hundreds of other European politicians, male and female, have been supporting a campaign run by the European Women`s Lobby which aims to persuade: the European Council to appoint women to top EU jobs; political parties to include equal numbers of women and men in their electoral lists; and women and men to get out on polling day and use their vote.

European Commission Vice-President Margot Wallstrom