As the world prepares to celebrate International Women's day on March 8, research reveals a mixed picture for women in Central and Eastern Europe.
Take a February survey by the human resources consultancy Mercer, which found that within Europe, women in CEE hold by far the highest share in senior executive and management posts.
With information gathered in the first half of 2011, the average ratio of senior executives and managers that were female stands at 29% across Europe as a whole, compared with 71% of men. However, CEE does by far the most to raise that average, with Lithuania leading the list with 44% of executives and managers being women. Bulgaria comes close on its heels with 43%, and Russia rounds out the top three with 40%. "Equality is a legacy from Soviet times with cultural and political life encouraging women to perform an equal role in society and the economy, so women were well represented," claims Sophie Black, principal in Mercer's executive remuneration team. "However, on the heels of the collapse of the Soviet Bloc came market forces and this is resulting in a steady erosion of equality which is causing the gender pay gap to widen."
The Czech Republic is the only CEE state to fall below the European average, with only 27% of senior posts held by women. That puts it on a par with Western Europe, where Greece and Ireland (33%) lead the pack, followed by Sweden (30%) and Belgium (29%). Despite long-term programmes - both at the national and EU level - aimed at increasing the number female executives, the likes of Spain, the UK and France could only muster an average 28%.
The disparity between the two sides of Europe is also reflected in the extent to which female executives are paid less than their male counterparts. The Mercer survey shows that in Western Europe the greatest pay-disparity is found in Germany where women executives were paid 22% less than the total compensation of their male counterparts, followed by Austria (-20%), Sweden (-19%), and Spain and Greece (both -18%).
Remarkably, female executives in Bulgaria actually earn 5% more in total compensation than their male peers, while those in Russia receive around 3% more. However, elsewhere in CEE pay-packets are less equal. Women in Lithuania received 18% less than their male counterparts followed by Romania (-14%), Hungary (-13%), Serbia (-12%), Slovakia (-11%), and Poland (-10%), with the Czech Republic and Ukraine both showing -5%. Turkey is near the equality line with female executives earning on average just 1% less than male counterparts.
Some of this pay disparity in CEE is backed by social prejudices: for example, "Gender equality in the EU" - a survey by the European Commission published in 2010 - found that nearly half of the Slovakians think women do not always have the necessary qualities to fill senior positions, compared with an average 23% in the pre- enlargement EU15. Having said that, Slovakia's outgoing prime minister is Iveta Radicova.
The survey also found that women in Emerging Europe 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. Although men live even shorter lives in the new member states, this means more widowed years for women. In March, Eurostat revealed that there are around 40% more women than men among the EU population aged 65 and over.
In the political sphere too, women are under-represented in CEE.
Roughly one in four MPs in the EU is a woman, but the proportion of female lawmakers in the 12 states that have joined since 2004 is 16%, compared with 29% in the EU15, according to the European Commission. Since 1998, female participation in national parliaments has increased 8% in the older member states. While some new members have followed this trend, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania lag behind.
Under-representation cannot simply be explained away by gender discrimination, notes the consultancy Political Capital, suggesting fewer women than men are interested in politics. 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.
This under-representation in politics has wider consequences. According to Mert Yildiz of Renaissance Capital in Turkey, "Countries with low female representation in government tend to have less respect for the rule of law, are more corrupt, and can be less politically stable."
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