The pay gap between men and women across Europe averages 18 per cent, a new survey showed today - but the UK average stands at more than 21 per cent.
The figures were condemned today by the European Commission, which announced plans to bridge the gap over the next five years, possibly including new laws.
"I am deeply concerned that the gender pay gap has barely fallen over the last 15 years, and in some countries is even increasing" said EU Commissioner Viviane Reding.
"In these times of crisis the gender pay gap is a cost Europe cannot afford. Together with the member states, we will significantly reduce the gender pay gap in the EU by the end of this Commission's mandate".
The gap is based on the difference in gross hourly earnings between men and women, and ranges from just 4.9 per cent in Italy to 30 per cent in Estonia.
At 21.4 per cent, the UK gap is the ninth widest out of the 27 countries.
A "Eurobarometer" survey showed that 62 per cent of Europeans think gender inequality is "widespread", with 54% believing "sexist stereotypes" at work are at least partly to blame.
Asked what priority steps should be taken to narrow the gap, 44% said simply increase women's pay for equal work, 41% said increase care facilities for children and the elderly to ease the pressure on women, and 40% said increase flexible working hours.
The gender pay gap on lifetime earnings means women will have lower pensions, resulting in women being more affected by "persistent and extreme poverty" - 22 per cent of women over 65 are at risk of poverty compared with 16% of men.
Today the Commission said it would publish a five-year gender equality plan in the second half of this year, using "both legislative and non-legislative instruments".
Proposed measures will include more transparency in company pay between men and women, enforcement of "gender neutral" job classifications and pay scales, and the use of "equality labels, charters and awards" for gender-neutral firms.
A "professional equality label" has existed in France since 2004, awarded to companies for three years if they show a commitment to gender equality in career development and job promotion.
Gender pay gap between men and women (EU average 18 per cent):
Estonia 30.3 per cent
Czech Rep 26.2 per cent
Austria 25.5 per cent
Netherlands 23.6 per cent
Germany 23.2 per cent
Greece 22 per cent
Lithuania 21.6 per cent
Cyprus 21.6 per cent
UK 21.4 per cent
Slovakia 20.9 per cent
Finland 20 per cent
France 19.2 per cent
Denmark 17.7 per cent
Hungary 17.5 per cent
Sweden 17.1 per cent
Ireland 17.1 per cent
Spain 17.1 per centReuse content