RITORNA AL SOMMARIO
In order to understand the evolution that has taken place at the European level during the last two decades, we must have a closer look at the interplay among the legal framework (1).
The first Community rule concerning equality between men and women is article 119 of the Rome Treaty, the basic document of EC law; the article is rather narrow in its focus, since it formulates the principle of equal pay for equal work of men and women (2). Nevertheless, as a result of the ECJ's bold teleological reading of the article, it has received wide application, and has produced important legal effects in the national legal systems of the member States. The increasing importance of this aspect of equality has convinced the Community legislator that having a more detailed legal discipline is necessary, and this was provided in 1975 by a new directive on the application of the principle of equal pay to male and female workers (3). The importance of this principle in Community law is further emphasized by its inclusion in article 6 of the annex to the Maastricht Treaty concerning social policy (4).
In 1976 the Community passed another important directive which, unlike the first, is very broad in its compass, since it deals with equality of men and women in their access to work, training, promotion and working conditions. This is certainly the Community measure on sex equality that has had the most important consequences on the legal systems of the member states, entailing the revision of several pre-existing legislations and practices (5). Due to the innovations introduced, this is also one of the Community measures that has given rise to the highest number of controversies before the ECJ. The directive creates a series of legal rights and duties that specify and implement the general principle of equal treatment (art. 1), and bans any kind of discrimination, direct and indirect, related to sex (6), providing only for a limited and specific number of objective exceptions (7), among which are the possibility of affirmative actions aimed at removing pre-existing disparities. The directive compels member States to review their existing legislations in order to render them compatible with the Community system, and to take all other steps necessary for their citizens to gain protection of their rights, via access to the court systems and by other legal means (e.g. rules that ban dismissal for reasons to do with the sex of the workers). In order to ensure a workable system, the directive compels the member states to inform the Commission on existing legislation in the field, and of all amendments made to it, so that the Community can monitor developments in order to ensure the correct implementation of its law. This directive has been an important step forward in the protection of women's rights, because it lays down fundamental principles and rules concerning equal treatment (8), and because it deals comprehensively with a sector, that of the labour market and working conditions, crucial in providing women with equal opportunities.
Other subsequent measures have dealt with more specific aspects; notably directive 79/7/EEC concerning equal treatment in social security (9), and directive 92/85/EEC on the protection of pregnant and breast-feeding workers (10).
In the more limited field of affirmative actions two Community legal instruments are particularly important. One is the already mentioned directive 76/207, which expressly lists among the exceptions to the equal treatment principle measures designed to remove disparities in opportunities between men and women, i.e. affirmative action plans (art. 2(4)). The problem has also been addressed specifically by a recommendation of 1984 (11), in which the European Council recognizes that all rules providing for equality between men and women are insufficient to guarantee real equality of opportunities, and member states are therefore recommended to adopt affirmative action policies in order to eliminate previous negative effects of discrimination and to stimulate participation by women in all working sectors and positions (12). Although Community recommendations are soft law, i.e. they do not bind states, they have strong persuasive force, and this instrument shows that there is growing awareness of the need to find new legal strategies to enhance women's participation in working life (13). Finally, the subject is dealt with marginally by the agreement on social policy annexed to the Maastricht treaty, whose art. 6 (3) (which contains the principle of equal pay) specifies that member states can keep or adopt measures that provide special benefits to facilitate the entrance of women in the labour market, or to compensate for existing disadvantages in their professional careers, thereby pointing up the lawfulness of the use of affirmative actions (14).