Women in Central European Economies: Challenges and Perspectives

By Aurore Guieu (V4SciencesPo) | 15 October 2012

To quote this document: Aurore Guieu (V4SciencesPo), “Women in Central European Economies: Challenges and Perspectives”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 15 October 2012, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1551, displayed on 17 January 2022

The liberalization of Central Europe in the past two decades was expected to improve the position of women within societies and economies. The 1990s democratic transitions triggered major political, social and economic changes in the region. Later on, the 2004 accession and the screening of gender equality policies by EU and independent observers were deemed a turning point for the region. But has the image of the « ideal woman » (Z.Bútorová) really changed? What issues do women still face on labour markets and how can they be addressed?

A conference organized in Paris in September 2012 gathered speakers from France and four Central European countries - Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – to discuss this issue. These four countries represent the Visegrad (V4) Group, an informal regional cooperation.  Academics and activists shared ideas on different challenges met in their countries; four of them particularly focused on the position of women in labour markets and more broadly in economics.

They represented a diverse set of countries and organizations. Zora Bútorová, Senior Research Fellow at the Slovak Institute for Public Affairs, explained how understanding social contexts is essential to grab potential obstacles met by women in employment. Amélie Bonnet, a PhD Candidate and Teaching Assistant working on Poland, described the role played by EU programmes in the field. Eva Valentová, Lawyer and Project Coordinator for the Association for Integration and Migration, presented an advocacy campaign on migrant domestic workers in the Czech Republic. Finally, Kinga Lohmann, Founder and Executive Director of the Karat Coalition, described the effects of the current financial and economic crisis on women’s rights.

Questioning the fairness of economic mutations

Central European countries engaged in major economic changes throughout their democratic transitions. Private sectors developed, heavy industries declined...The process has often been deemed a « shock therapy ». Despite positive effects on the freedom of profession and entrepreneurship, negative outcomes were soon to be seen. Age, gender and education became important variables for unemployment in a competitive market, leaving disadvantaged and elder women particularly at risk.

When large industrial groups closed down in various regions of the V4 Group, women became favourite candidates for dismissals and faced gendered job advertisements. For 20 unemployed men, up to 70 unemployed women competed for a position. The proportion of discouraged female workers increased, with women staying home without always benefiting from unemployment public programmes. And although the gender pay gap has decreased, women still earn today only around 80% of a man's wage in the same position. The « glass ceiling »? Still a reality for many.

It does not get better with age. With a lifelong lesser wage and periods of inactivity due to pregnancies and childrearing, female pensioners receive 20% less than their male counterparts. At the same time, while retirement ages are increasing, finding a job is much harder for elder women than for men. No wonder the former are on the frontline of poverty.

Other groups of women do not seem to benefit from fair work conditions. Migrant women and particularly migrant domestic workers may face violations of their labour rights: unpaid overtime, immediate and unspecified dismissals... Recent restrictive migration policies in the Czech Republic have for example triggered direct effects on work permit granting and renewal. Six months after specific measures concerning domestic work were issued by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in January 2012, the Association for Integration and Migration recorded a significant increase in rejections. Rigid conditions for domestic and self-employment push many migrant women into informal and thus illegal work, which of course means no access to public health insurance or other social benefits. A fragile residence status completes the picture, isolating those migrant women and potentially preventing them from reporting human rights violations, such as physical attacks or sexual harassment at work.

The fairness of recent economic mutations might well be questioned. Does that mean young women should be nostalgic of communist eras? Not really. Although many women worked full-time then – more than in Western Europe – the reality of gender equality did not always match political discourses. Female employment stayed an adjustable variable for industries, which encouraged women to go back home when their needs requested so. Women worked because two salaries were needed to guarantee family standards of living. Finally, the gender pay gap was a reality, which means turning to the past cannot represent an answer to today’s challenges.

To address these issues, speakers advocated for a higher involvement of women in economic power and decision-making. As Kinga Lohmann put it shortly, « this is where power has shifted ». In the absence of concrete gender-sensitive approach in current economics, women's rights movements need to develop a feminist critical approach addressing this major issue of gender equality.


A persistent vision of gender roles

The question is: what will be the margin of maneuver for such initiatives in Central European societies ? Despite a long tradition of female full-time work, traditional gender roles are persistent and this could further prevent women from accessing equality on labour markets.

As in many other European countries, women take on most of the household work, even though young educated women tend to negotiate it more with their partners. Economic difficulties reinforce this situation, with men accepting short term contracts and women staying home to take care of children and, in rural regions, farms. As in other European countries, this household work is unpaid. Considering it as « not real work » has also consequences on the perceptions of migrant women, some female employers seeing domestic workers as a gift from their partner rather than a proper worker. Unsurprisingly, this opens the way to abuses and a lack of consideration.

Childcare, or rather the lack of childcare facilities, still represents a major obstacle to gender equality. The current network of day care pushes many young mothers into forced unemployment. Facilities are rare, open only a few hours a day, and despite an affordable public care indirect costs such as transport do not always make it profitable for all. In a region where part-time work has never really bloomed, reconciliation between professional and private lives is still not a real concern for public policy. This is not only a burden for young mothers: institutions for dependent elder people are missing as well and female family members mainly perform care. This vision of women as caregivers does not help them in a competitive job market where they are still perceived as « risk investment ».

A fair share of public opinion states in surveys that gender inequalities are rather natural. Even in situations where both women and men recognize those inequalities, it is not rare for men to explain that their overall performance is better and entitles them to higher wages and pensions. Changing societal understandings of gender roles means taking into account diverse forces, including conservative ones. However, even in Poland where the place of the Catholic Church has been extensively documented, the direct influence of conservative models may be difficult to identify. Finally, although there have been recently some examples of women's actions for their rights, such as nurses demonstrations in Slovakia, collective action is seldom in the region. This does not help making the issue visible.

An ambiguous role for the European Union

The last decade has marked Central European populations with economic hardships and industries closing down in various V4 regions. The 2004 accession was expected to decrease unemployment. However, NGOs such as the Karat Coalition claim that most of the decrease was due to migration more than improvements on domestic labour markets.

The EU developed specific employment support programs, notably through the European Social Fund (ESF), for which V4 countries have each received between 1.5 and 10 billion euro. Although some projects seemed to succeed in encouraging women's labour, more recent data tend to show that these successes were rather short-term. Six months after the end of a Polish project in youth employment implemented by the Ministry of Labour, more men than women could find or keep a job. As highlighted by A. Bonnet, "women are the main beneficiaries of ESF projects but they benefit less from them on the labour market, even though other variables impact this situation".

Although gender equality seems increasingly pushed forward in EU law and policy, many women's rights organizations are closing down, denouncing their difficulty to qualify for EU financial support in the field. Could that situation have any impact on the position of women in economies? Speakers agreed on the idea that money is political power and that these difficulties are meaningful. While feminist movements should not hesitate to criticize current trends in EU and national economic policies, their lobbying capacities at EU level should be enhanced.

Discussing women in V4 economies in a context of crisis without considering a broader societal picture? Impossible, answered all speakers. Does it mean that women in Central Europe encounter totally different challenges than in Western Europe? Certainly not. This is the main difficulty for any EU action: taking into account a specific context while addressing common challenges. Indeed, as in other regions, inequalities on the labour market can be directly linked to persistent gender roles enhancing a vision of the "ideal woman". It is in this articulation that research and activism must take place. Whether it be in Central, Western, Southern, Eastern or Scandinavian Europe.

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Image credits: © Diane Guieu