Eastern Europe risks losing lead in workplace equality

Eastern Europe risks losing lead in workplace equality
Russia and other East European countries continue to have among the highest proportion of businesses led by women entrepreneurs in the world, a MasterCard study finds.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest March 9, 2018

Russia, Poland and other countries in  Eastern Europe have among the world’s largest proportions of female business leaders and women represented in senior management, despite the increasingly conservative politics of these countries. However, new surveys released around International Women’s Day indicate the region could be losing what was once a global lead in the area. 

The relatively high number of women that remain in high-ranking positions in businesses – especially in the financial sector and financial roles – is partly a legacy from the communist era and to some extent it continues despite less than conducive business and political environments. 

While recent policy decisions in countries such as Russia, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria have gone against women in areas such as reproductive rights and domestic violence, the conservative backlash in several countries appears to have had little impact in areas affecting the workplace — possibly because of the growing skills shortage caused partly by dwindling populations as a result of low birth rates and mass emigration. 

Research from financial services company Grant Thornton shows that the percentage of businesses in Eastern Europe with at least one woman in senior management fell slightly from 91% in 2017 to 87% in 2018. While still among the most equal regions in the world in this respect, Eastern Europe is no longer the leader, having been overtaken this year by Africa, where 89% of businesses have women in senior management. 

Eastern Europe still has the highest proportion of senior roles held by women — 36%, which is 6 percentage points higher than its nearest rivals Africa and Latin America — but again reveals a decline from 38% in 2017. Globally, the percentage of businesses with at least one woman in senior management leapt from 66% in 2017 to 75% in 2018, although the proportion of senior roles held by women declined by 1pp to 24%. 

Overall, Eastern Europe's largest economies, Poland and Russia, “continue their tradition of strong female participation” with 93% and 91% of businesses respectively having at least one women in senior management. “However, while Eastern Europe continues to lead the way, there are signs that previously positive trends in the region may be in reverse,” the report warns. 

There is speculation this could be linked to complacency or lack of interest in the situation. Russia is among the (mainly European) countries in which businesses leaders are most likely to say there are no barriers to introducing additional gender equality policies and practices. “[T]here are concerns that this may demonstrate a lack of awareness among business leaders,” the report says. Businesses in Russia, along with Canada and the Netherlands, were the least likely to have gender diversity quotas in place — although the report does point out this may be because Russian businesses already demonstrate gender diversity in leadership. Still, half of the business leaders surveyed from the region said they wanted their governments to do more. 

“Gender diversity doesn’t happen by itself. Even countries that do well will stop seeing progress if there isn’t a sustained effort to focus on it,” said Karitha Ericson, chief operating officer at Grant Thornton Sweden,  in the report. 

Meanwhile, Jolanta Jackowiak, partner at Grant Thornton Poland, linked a lack of progress to stereotypes about gender roles. “Existing stereotypes and cultural opinions can often be key barriers to a woman’s career development. Stereotypes can be reinforced by individuals in a business, the working environment, as well as family and friends. As a result, it may be hard to change perception of who can be a successful leader,” Jackowiak commented. 

A separate study on women entrepreneurs also finds a generally positive situation in the region, with 34.6% of Russian businesses owned by women, putting the country second only to Ghana (46.4%). Other East European economies also had a high proportion of female business owners; Poland, with 30.3%, was in seventh place, closely followed by Romania (28.9%, ninth place) and Hungary (28.1%, 12th). Romania also made the biggest advance on the ranking, rising four places. The Czech Republic, which was the only other country from the region to be included in the study, was around the middle of the table of 57 economies, with 23.6% of businesses owned by women. 



At the same time, Mastercard published its Index of Women Entrepreneurs, which uses 12 indicators and 25 sub-indicators to compare the how conducive the environment is in each country to women’s ability to thrive in the business world. These are broadly divided into three categories: Women’s Advancement Outcomes, Knowledge Assets & Financial Access and Supporting Entrepreneurial Factors. 

In general, the proportion of women-owned businesses showed a strong correlation with the Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs (MIWE) in 2018. In Asia Pacific, North and Latin America, Russia, Europe and Scandinavia, “women are making positive inroads as business leaders and professionals underpinned by supportive underlying entrepreneurial conditions”. 

Yet this isn’t true across the board. In Poland, Romania and Russia, as well as several countries from other geographies, perform less well on the MIWE, especially in the “Supporting Entrepreneurial Conditions” category, than the outcome, namely the high proportion of women entrepreneurs, would indicate.



“In these markets, although the social, financial, institutional and academic conditions for women are not always very favourable, women are able to leverage on opportunities available in their respective environments to be business owners and leaders and professionals/technical workers,” the report says.