Archive for March 9, 2010

Women in the CEE countries: still not appreciated?

March 9, 2010 1 comment

March 8 is the day Europe honors its women, regardless of whether they live in the western or eastern halves. But that’s where the “equality” ends. When it comes to political, economic and social status, females are much better off in the older European Union members than in the former communist states.

Roughly one in four MPs in the EU is female. However, the proportion of women lawmakers in the 12 members that have joined since 2004 is 16%, compared to 29% in the EU15. Since 1998, female participation in national parliaments has increased 8% in the old member states; while some new members have followed this trend, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania lag behind. Hungary has even registered a decline in its proportion of female MPs.

Proportion of female MPs in national parliaments
  Hungary Romania Czech Rep. Slovakia Poland Bulgaria EU15 average
January 1998 11.4% 7.3% 15.0% 14.7% 13.0% 10.8% 21.3%
January 2010 11.1% 11.4% 15.5% 18.0% 20.0% 20.8% 29.3%

Perhaps parliamentary elections in spring 2010 will bring change in Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Hungary. But regardless of the outcome, male domination of Hungary’s national assembly is unlikely to change: Less than 8% of candidates in single-member constituencies are female. The problem should not be solved by positive discrimination or quotas, as these tools frequently reinforce negative stereotypes about women (They’re weak, that’s why they need institutional support.) Still, change in gender norms would be beneficial.

The reasons for these phenomena are complex. Underrepresentation cannot simply be explained away by gender discrimination.  Fewer women are interested in politics than men: In the 2009 round of European Social Survey (ESS), a biannual EU-funded poll of societal attitudes, 55% of male respondents said they were “very interested” or “quite interested” in politics. Only 42% of women answered in the same manner.

Gender equality in the workplace is even more important than in politics, as it affects the life of practically all women. Men in the EU still earn significantly more then women, with the average pay gap at about 15 percent, according to official Eurostat statistics. There is no significant difference between the old and new member states in this regard. Lower wages for women are due in part to the difficulty of females getting into management positions. In the CEE countries, this handicap is backed by social prejudices: Nearly half of the Slovakians think women do not always have the necessary qualities to fill such positions, compared to an average 23 percent in the EU15.

Women in the EU12 are also behind their Western European peers in terms of health outlook. Life expectancy is much lower for women in the post-Soviet bloc than in the EU15. Life expectancy for men in the EU12 is even worse. This means more widowed years for women – still not a great perspective.

Communism’s official policy of eliminating differences between women and men in the workplace and politics has clearly failed. Instead, 40 years of state socialism has cemented rigid female role patterns. These countries need years of hard work if they want to change attitudes and thought patterns – and not just among men, but among that section of humanity that is being honoured today. More then 15 percent of Hungarian women agree strongly that when jobs are scarce, men should get preference over women, according to the 2009 ESS survey.


Female inequality is not just an ethincal, but a political risk factor as well. According to World Economic Forum’s latest Corporate Gender Gap Report, leading companies are not doing enough to advance the cause of gender equality. The number of female and male graduates in higher education is almost equal; wasting this potential talent decreases a country’s competitiveness, which has become increasingly important since the global economic crisis struck. Political decision makers cannot afford to damage their country’s competitiveness due to gender inequality.