Written by: Maren Wilmes
Edited by Tommaso Filippini


This policy brief is aimed at European policymakers as well as national decision-makers in EU Member States. It discusses taxation in the EU with a focus on gender equality and the reproduction of patriarchal structures in the tax system.

Following on from a previous paper on Menstrual Health by Karolyn Moore of the Working Group on Gender Equality, which also addresses the tampon tax, this policy brief questions existing laws and the role of the EU in taxation. It further identifies possible recommendations or areas for improvement in relation to indirect and direct taxation, focussing on the role of joint tax units and secondary earners.


Initially, the European Union (EU) was founded with the aim of establishing a European Economic Community to facilitate trade between the Member States. The focus was explicitly on economic goals, and social aspects, such as gender equality, did not play a major role in policymaking. It was only with the Treaties of Maastricht (1992), Amsterdam (1999) and Lisbon (2009) that the EU and its legislative powers were formalised, and social objectives introduced (Gunnarsson &  Spangenberg, 2019).

While taxation in recent decades has mainly focussed on growth-friendly tax policies with less attention paid to the perspective of social justice (Gunnarson, 2017), the goal of gender equality has become increasingly important over the years and is now one of the EU’s core values. Consequently, gender issues have also gained more attention in macroeconomic policies. Nevertheless, while the EU has started to address the issue of tax measures that hinder equal participation in the labour market, other issues related to gender equality are being disregarded. For example, unpaid care work or maternal leave which are closely linked to the actual impact of tax rules. Against the backdrop of different gender-specific socio-economic conditions, tax policy decisions and tax regulations therefore affect men and women differently (Gunnarsson & Spangenberg, 2019).

At the same time, international and national obligations to eradicate discrimination and ensure gender equality in relation to tax systems still appear to be under-researched and tend to be treated as two separate issues. It is therefore important to address interlinkages more frequently and take them into account in future policy measures, which the following policy brief aims to contribute to (Gunnarsson et. al., 2017).

Problem description & current situation

So far, EU tax policy has been predominantly characterised by the idea of economic growth and optimal taxation, with the main objective being to avoid excessive tax burdens on the economy. In this context, social aspects such as redistributive justice and the different effects of taxes on women and men have been given little consideration. This has changed in recent years, especially considering the commitment to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development of the United Nations, which recognises gender equality as a key objective for sustainability. Nevertheless, neither the European institutions nor the Member States are fulfilling their legal obligations or political commitments to ensure gender equality in taxation (Gunnarsson &  Spangenberg, 2019). Against this background, the European Parliament generally has only limited powers in relation to tax legislation, as taxation is considered an essential part of the sovereignty of the Member States (Gunnarsson et. al., 2017). For the most part, the Parliament’s role is limited to an advisory function, for example encouraging the Commission to submit new proposals for fairer taxation (European Parliament, n.d., 1).

Although most Member States have abolished tax rules that explicitly differentiate between men and women, socio-economic realities, such as differences in employment rates or pay, influence tax effects according to gender (Gunnarsson et. al., 2017). For instance, long-term trends in national tax policy tend to discriminate against women, owing in part to the relatively low proportion of women in top-earning jobs (Gunnarsson &  Spangenberg, 2019). In this context, income taxes account for almost half of total tax revenue. While the share of taxation on wealth and high incomes within the EU remains relatively low or has even decreased in recent years, this leads to a shift in the structural tax burden on women due to the unequal distribution of wealth and best-paid jobs (Gunnarsson et. al., 2017).

Efforts the European Parliament has undertaken in this context include a study commissioned by the European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM Committee) in 2017 on gender equality and taxation in the EU (Gunnarsson et. al., 2017). Following this, the European Parliament adopted a resolution (European Parliament, 2019) on gender equality and tax policy in the EU which sheds light on the legal framework for gender equality focussing particularly on obligations for European and national tax policy on the basis of EU internal as well as international commitments, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (Gunnarsson &  Spangenberg, 2019).

At the same time, Valued Added Tax (VAT) seems to have gained importance. Within this scope, the so-called tampon tax describes the VAT applied on menstrual products for women. As such, it represents an indirect tax, meaning it is raised on the product, making it  more expensive and thereby affecting the income and spending capacity of a person in a second step (Crawford & Spivack, 2017; European Parliament, n.d., 2). As noted in a previous paper by the Gender Equality Working Group, menstrual hygiene and access to menstrual products are inextricably linked to basic human rights, with the tampon tax posing an unavoidable cost burden and challenge for women. To address this, the European Union has called on Member States to make menstrual products accessible in a 2021 resolution (European Parliament, 2021), but each state still has its own national regimes (Moore, 2024). 

At the same time, this sheds light on broader issues of taxation in the European Union and its gender implications. It reflects the need for a wider perspective and common legislative reforms that tackle socio-economic imbalances and provide long-term solutions to gender inequality. This shift towards a more equal and fairer system must apply equally to indirect and direct taxation (Gunnarson, 2017). To further illustrate the existing imbalance in taxation and gender equality, the specific example of taxation of joint units and second earners is briefly discussed below.

The issue of joint tax units & secondary earners

The issue of joint tax units and secondary earners represents a direct form of taxation imposed on an individual’s income and is one of the most common examples of inequality and taxation, as gender issues are most obviously expressed in the taxation of personal income (European Parliament, n.d., 1). Secondary earners are defined as partners in married or partnered couples who are employed, but earn less than their partners and are disproportionately taxed in most EU Member States due to certain transfers or tax reliefs that depend on the intra-household distribution of paid labour (Gunnarsson et. al., 2017). If the tax rates for second earners are higher than for single people, the tax rules lead to a distortion that harbours the risk of falling into the inactivity and low-wage trap. 

Against this background, women earn, on average, 16% less than men. This is, among other factors, due to part-time work, career breaks, discrimination in pay or occupational segregation of the labour market, which means that women suffer particularly from the second earner effects of taxation (Gunnarson 2017; Gunnarsson et. al., 2017; Gunnarsson & Spangenberg, 2019). For example, the employment rates of women in the individual Member States range from 44,6% in Greece to 75,2% in Sweden (Eurostat 2018). Besides, the Gender overall earnings gap ranges from a minimum of 20.4% in Lithuania and Portugal to 44.2% in Austria and amounts to 36.2% for the EU as a whole (ibid.). Furthermore, according to the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), women who re-enter the labour market after maternity leave are particularly at risk of ending up in low-paid part-time employment. This can have a detrimental effect on professional qualifications, long-term income opportunities and social security, such as pensions later on (EIGE, n.d.). All in all, although the income gap between women and men is largely due to non-tax factors, tax policy can play an important role in counteracting gender-specific differences. Thus, it can directly reduce post-tax inequality on the one hand and change incentives, for example for participation in the labour market, on the other (Coelho et al., 2022).

In this context, joint tax units are defined as tax systems of two people in which tax rates and liability are only considered based on the couple’s joint income (UCLA Department of Economics, 2020). While a trend towards individual taxation can be observed in the EU Member States, almost all national tax systems also contain joint provisions relating to welfare state transactions such as social benefits and childcare subsidies (Coelho et al., 2022; Gunnarsson et. al., 2017). This means that even a shift to the individual taxpayer will continue to be frequently combined with family-related tax relief and social benefits to support families in need and improve tax fairness (Gunnarsson et. al., 2017). This model has been largely based on traditional gender roles, with the assumption of a family with a working husband and a stay-at-home wife with several children. Thus, joint taxation of households was seen primarily to favour families and encourage marriage and fertility, creating a social role for women as homemakers (Coelho et. al., 2022; Gunnarsson & Spangenberg, 2019). Against this background, this idea continues to the present day, with joint taxation having a different impact on the individual income of the partners and affecting second earners in particular, who are often women (Gunnarsson et. al., 2017).

Overall, although joint tax units are seemingly gender-neutral at first, they are found at the intersection of gender, tax policy and law which implies that a sustainable improvement in gender equality cannot be achieved if national tax systems continue to contain tax traps for second earners. Efforts by the EU repeatedly come up against limits due to its limited powers, but influencing national tax policy through recommendations or via the European Commission can still be effective (Gunnarson, 2017; Gunnarsson et. al., 2017).  Possibilities and recommendations for improvements are discussed in the conclusion below.

Conclusion: Policy options & recommendations

As this policy brief has shown, gender equality and taxation are intertwined and not separate areas of society. Thus, socio-economic inequalities based on gender that exist before taxation have an impact on the way taxes affect the realities of men’s or women’s lives. Therefore, the underlying differences that lead to different tax outcomes need to be urgently addressed. Even though the European Parliament adopted a resolution in 2019 (European Parliament, 2019) calling on Member States to make changes, such as the abolition of the tampon tax, it has only limited legislative competences, which leaves the responsibility mainly to the EU Member States (Gunnarsson & Spangenberg, 2019). The following recommendations try to answer parts of the problem and give impulses for further policy-making in the field:

Firstly, international commitments such as the 2030 Agenda, which both the EU and its Member States have made regarding gender equality, should be taken seriously at European level within the tax policy framework (Gunnarson, 2017). Thus, the EU must fully commit to the introduction of a socially fair tax system and the implementation of the SDGs. This means not only considering the optimal economic outcome and growth but specifically monitoring and addressing the distributional effects of the applied tax rules from a welfare perspective (Crawford & Spivack, 2017; Gunnarson, 2017; Gunnarsson & Spangenberg, 2019). In doing so, policymakers should also take socio-economic realities seriously, such as the gender income gap, to develop tax and social policies that are coherent with women’s equality (Coelho et. Al, 2022; Gunnarson, 2017; Gunnarsson et. al., 2017). As an illustration, the EU should try to address the imbalance between paid and unpaid work, with unpaid care work being mostly done by women and resulting in them working more part-time and therefore earning less money than men (Gunnarsson & Spangenberg, 2019).

To achieve this, the EU must promote more research on the topic to provide national policymakers with sufficient expertise and specialised knowledge. This is particularly necessary regarding gender-differentiated distributional effects of net wealth, wealth taxes and value-added taxes (Gunnarsson et. al., 2017; Gunnarsson & Spangenberg, 2019). On the other hand, the EU should use its limited role as an advisor on taxation to reinforce the need for compliance with national commitments on non-discrimination and gender equality and emphasise its strong links with tax jurisprudence (Gunnarsson & Spangenberg, 2019). One way in which the EU could extend its influence on national tax systems would be through the European Commission and the Economic and Financial Affairs Council, both of which participate in the coordination of Member States’ tax policies by developing soft law provisions and guidelines. Moreover, the annual European Semester cycle is one of the most important processes for shaping and impacting national fiscal policy, as it provides a framework for economic policy across the EU and could be further utilised to allow the EU to exert greater influence on Member States (Gunnarsson et. al., 2017).

To support the EU, Member States should also provide coherent and gender-specific data, in particular on men’s and women’s income and labour market participation. In addition, gender-specific data on consumption and wealth should be made available to conduct appropriate policy analysis and develop tools to address gender inequalities in taxation (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, n.d.). Furthermore, a need for tax reforms at the national level was observed. The EU Member States should therefore organise their tax system based on problem-oriented results to achieve sustainable and fair tax systems. Tax policy frameworks should therefore be based on values, objectives, and principles to achieve gender equality as one of the EU’s fundamental values (Gunnarson, 2017). 

Against this background, it is recommended that all Member States replace joint taxation with individual taxation to promote the employment of women and their participation in the labour market. In addition, income tax should be reconsidered in relation to corporate profits and top earners. In most cases, they are taxed too low compared to ordinary employees. At the same time, most top earners are still men. Increased taxation of high-income and high-wealth jobs could therefore offset the current shift of the tax burden to women (Gunnarsson & Spangenberg, 2019). Concrete measures that could be taken further in this context are: the abolition of benefits based on joint income that are not related to basic needs, increased legislation to counteract wage discrimination or the promotion of quotas for women in high-level and well-paid positions (ibid.). Additionally, it would be advisable for Member States to scrutinise existing indirect taxes such as the tampon tax or VAT exemptions in relation to gender and, if necessary, abolish them (Crawford & Spivack, 2017).

Finally, civil society can also contribute by continuing to hold Member States and the EU accountable. In doing so, NGOs or other actors could bring different cases to court to tackle the inherent inequalities in taxation and women’s equal participation in society in both direct and indirect taxation (ibid.).


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