Businesswomen seek a seat at the top table

Businesswomen seek a seat at the top table
Russia's only female oligarch Yelena Baturina.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest May 11, 2017

The communist legacy of women’s strong role in the workplace has endured across CEE and the former Soviet Union. But the fall of communism has been followed by successive backlashes against feminism, on top of persistent social and cultural issues holding back businesswomen and female entrepreneurs.

There is no shortage of women starting up businesses, but when it comes to the largest companies in countries across the region, virtually all are owned by and managed by men. With a handful of exceptions, self-made women in the post-communist world are usually those who have grown a successful business as part of a husband and wife team.

Others that have entered the rich lists for their countries are the wives or daughters of successful businessmen. Almost all the female billionaires from the region covered by bne IntelliNews are from Turkey, and all have inherited their wealth.

This is not seen – yet – in the post-communist world, where the super rich are first generation; most made their fortunes in the “wild capitalism” years of the 1990s. Unregulated new markets and dubious privatisations saw the emergence of a new class of oligarchs in Russia and other countries across the region. Virtually all were men.

The “femigarchs

The sole female oligarch, and Russia’s only female billionaire, to have emerged from that turbulent period of history is Yelena Baturina, who built up a construction empire in the 1990s and early 2000s and is now the owner of landmark hotels across Europe.

Born on International Women’s Day 1963, Baturina launched her first business, an IT company, alongside her brother Viktor in 1989, two years before the collapse of communism. In 1991, the year she married fellow Muscovite and future Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov, she founded Inteko, initially a plastics company that later moved into construction. During the nearly two decades Luzhkov served as Moscow mayor, Baturina diversified her business into areas such as construction materials, as well as securing lucrative contracts, including one to provide seating for Moscow’s giant Luzhniki stadium.

Shortly before the international economic crisis and the collapse of the real estate market, she exited some of her investments to buy Russian blue-chip shares, later using these to keep Inteco afloat. Even though billions were knocked off her net worth after the start of the crisis, she remains Russia’s richest woman.

Despite her achievements, like many other successful women who feel the need to show their feminine side, in interviews she has talked about how her Soviet upbringing made her a good housewife who enjoys cooking borscht for her husband.

Examples like Baturina are few and far between. The only other female oligarch to emerge from the former Soviet Union was Gulnara Karimova, the elder daughter of Uzbekistan’s former President Islam Karimov.

Karimova allegedly used her position to take stakes in the country’s most successful businesses from mobile telecoms to mining, a practice that gained her a reputation as a “robber baron” and the “most hated person in the country”, according to a 2005 US embassy cable released by WikiLeaks.

She amassed a fortune estimated at around $700mn, and was for several years considered a potential successor to her father. However, she fell from grace after an apparent power struggle in 2013, and she was stripped of her assets and placed under house arrest. Rumours that she had been poisoned after her father’s death in 2016 were later found to be incorrect and she is understood to still be under house arrest in Tashkent.

Another rare example, this time from Bulgaria, is Tzvetelina Borislavova, who set up her private investment company, Clever Synergies Investment Fund, in 2005, building up a fortune of €185mn.

Both Baturina and Karimova were married – Baturina apparently happily to Luzhkov; Karimova to Afghan-American businessman Mansur Maqsudi, who she divorced acrimoniously in 2001 – while Borislavova is the ex-girlfriend of Bulgaria’s former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. However, all three headed their own business empires and can be considered highly successful in their own right, even though they benefited from ties to powerful elites.

Mixed record

But this is not usual in the former communist countries. “The record under socialism is quite mixed,” says Charlotte Ruhe, director, small business support at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). “If you look at real political and economic power across the region even today, I think women are really underrepresented. Traditional views about the woman’s role supporting the family have persisted, while the lack of support networks made it hard for women to have a role in the economic life of the country.”

“There was a history of women in leadership positions under state socialism; not perhaps top positions, but middle leadership,” says Eva Fodor, associate professor of gender studies at the Central European University in Budapest. “But that’s not the same as business leadership. The notion of a businessperson running their own business emerged after 1990 exactly at the time there was a backlash against the socialist emancipation project.”

Fodor describes the backlash as “against the notion of women working, being emancipated, joining the labour market. There was this desire of a lot of middle class women to go home and be housewives like in Western Europe, which is ironic because it is exactly the time when women from Western Europe started to join the labour force in greater numbers.”

This is perhaps why women seem to rise to high positions – though not necessarily the top executive roles – in established companies in countries such as Russia, more than they tend to found top businesses themselves.

Another legacy of the communist era is that “typically women were chief accountants. Some ended up CEOs of banks but at the time banks were effectively accounting for the government,” says Ruhe.

For example, Umut Shayakhmetova has headed the management board of Kazakhstan’s largest lender Halyk Bank since 2009. Two women – Elvira Nabiullina and Valeria Gontareva – also established reputations for cleaning up the banking sectors of Russia and Ukraine respectively during their time at the helms of the two countries’ central banks. (Although Gontareva recently announced her intention to step down after the launch of an anti-corruption probe targeting senior officials at the bank.)

Financial services firm Grant Thornton’s latest annual Women in Business report finds that Russia topped the list of countries with the highest proportion of senior roles held by women: 47%. In addition, all the major Russian companies surveyed had a woman on their senior leadership team. Across Eastern Europe the figure was 38%, up from 35% in 2016, with Estonia and Poland tied in third place with 40% of senior roles held by women.

“The region owes some of its strong performance to the legacy of communist principles which have placed women as equals for generations,” says the report.

“Although the Soviet era is often criticised by experts, one of the key achievements of this historical period of our country was a worthy and equal status of women in society,” says Tatiana Gvilava, head of the All-Russian Public Organization for Businesswomen. “In our society the equality of women was entrenched in our mentality.”

Russia also performs well on MasterCard’s Index of Women Entrepreneurs, published in March. 32.6% of entrepreneurs in Russia are female, putting it in fourth place among 54 countries, with Hungary and Poland also relatively high.

On the other hand, the low proportion of women entrepreneurs in countries such as India and Saudi Arabia “are indicative of the fact that cultural biases against women severely undermine their ability to rise to positions of leadership and take advantage of entrepreneurial opportunities”. Iran and Turkey are also close to the bottom of the list.

Other obstacles identified by the study include “lack of financial funding/venture capital, regulatory restrictions and institutional inefficiencies, lack of self-belief and entrepreneurial drive, fear of failure, socio-cultural restrictions and lack of training and education”.

“I don’t believe women are their own obstacles; it’s more complicated than that,” argues Rania Anderson, founder of international women’s networking association The Way Women Work and author of “Undeterred: The Six Success Habits of Women in Emerging Economies”. “The main source of tension is that women are first seen as mothers, wives or daughters, and this takes precedence over their other roles in life,”

She also points to a lack of knowledge and understanding of how to grow a business, with some women entrepreneurs picking areas that interest them – typical examples are fashion or beauty – rather than looking for needs in the marketplace. On the other hand, “In terms of funding, there are barriers, but with the right ideas and the right business model they can get money.”

Ambition and obstacles

Anu Viks, president of the Estonian Association of Business and Professional Women (BPW), says that generally Estonia has a good environment for startups, but “for female entrepreneurs it is still not so bright”.

Estonia broke decisively with its communist past, but the influence of nearby Scandinavia is strong. Even so, Estonian women face traditions and stereotypes leading to greater confidence in male business leaders, lower pay (the Estonian pay gap is the highest in Europe), making it harder for women to save money to launch a business, and the need to balance a career with unpaid work in the home leaves less time and energy to build their careers.

At the other end of the Eurasian region, the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan has one of the largest gender development gaps in Eastern Europe, according to a World Economic Forum ranking. “The situation is very difficult,” says Malika Mirzobakhodurova of the National Association of Business Women of Tajikistan (NABWT). “Among the obstacles preventing women from starting up their own businesses the main barriers are limited access to finance, low literacy and education levels, lack of support from their families and fear on the part of many women of setting up a business.”

On the other hand, the exodus of many Tajik men – especially from the poorest parts of the country – to work in Russia has created opportunities for the women left behind. “She feels she is the person responsible for her family, children, she starts to work hard, create business and grow it up,” says Mirzobakhodurova.

Power couples

Having said that, many of the female owners of successful businesses got to the top in partnership with their husbands. In Poland, for example, all the women on Forbes’ list of the country’s richest women either built their businesses in partnership with their spouses or benefitted from their husband’s success.

They include Malgorata and Maciej Adamkiewicz, who met as medical students before taking over a company founded by Maciej’s father and building it into a local pharma giant. Teresa and Kazimierz Mokrysowie also took over a family business, which they rebranded and grew internationally. Today Mokate exports coffee whiteners and instant cappuccino powder to 60 countries worldwide. Meanwhile, Solange and Krysztof Olszewscy’s Solaris Bus & Coach has become a flagship for Poland’s automotive manufacturing industry.

Successful husband and wife teams are seen across the region, not only in Poland. Yet another example are Ira and Samir Login, the Slovenian creators of entertainment company Outfit7, whose recent $1bn sale to an unnamed Asian investor turned them into the country’s richest couple. Also in the tech arena, Mariuca Talpes joined her husband Florian in Romanian antivirus software company Bitdefender.

However, some of the very richest women in the region are not self-made, but those who have inherited family business holdings. “Women may get opportunities in family owned businesses more than in the corporate marketplace; a father won’t be biased against his own daughter if he sees how capable she is,” says Anderson.

The importance of inherited wealth is the reason why Turkey - despite having an economy only one eighteenth the size of Russia’s – is where most of the Eurasian region’s female billionaires are concentrated; unlike most of the region Turkey was never under communism. The Turkish economy is dominated by huge holding companies and conglomerates, most of which are now in the hands of the children and grandchildren of their founders.

Turkey’s richest woman is Semahat Sevim Arsel, with an estimated fortune of $2.6bn, according to Turkish website Tatpek. She is the daughter of Koc Holding founder Vehbi Koc, who died in 1996, and a director of the vast holding company. Her sister Suna Kirac is also on Turkey’s rich list. Fellow female Turkish billionaires include Deniz and Filiz Sahenk, the wife and daughter of Dogus Holding founder Ayhan Sahenk, Fatma Tuba Yazici, the widow of Diler Holding’s founder, and several members of the Sabanci family.

While Azerbaijan only emerged from communist rule in 1991, a similar pattern is developing in the Caucasian country, where giant holding companies have been built up over the last quarter century, though most are still in the hands of their founders.

Nonetheless, the female members of the owners’ families have joined the super-rich, with the most obvious examples being the ruling Aliyev family thanks to the marriage of President Ilham Aliyev and Mehriban Aliyev, daughter of the founder of Pasha Holding. An investigation by RFE/RL linked daughters Leyla and Arzu Aliyeva to the ownership of mobile telecoms giant Azerfone; the two women are also reportedly owners of SW Holding, which controls most of Azerbaijan’s airline industry and several of the country’s banks.

Starting small

But for every Leyla and Arzu Aliyeva there are thousands of small-scale women entrepreneurs aiming to create comfortable lives for their families and struggling against gender bias, difficulties in securing funding, and the red tape that all small businesses, male or female led, face in much of the region.

Getting more women into business and in particular in leadership roles would have concrete benefits going far beyond those to individual women. A 2015 McKinsey study shows that if women were to play an identical role to men in international labour markets, $28 trillion, or 26%, could be added to global annual GDP within a decade.

However, on top of the traditional barriers, new challenges for women are emerging in CEE, generally thought to be the most developed part of the region, with the election of populist right-wing governments. As a result, Fodor says, the region is now experiencing “another very strong backlash against gender equality”.

“The backlash against the communist emancipation project disappeared at the turn of the century, but we see it again now. In a number of East European countries there is a disdain for the gender equality rhetoric of the European Union, West European governments and even the UN,” she says.

This has been observed across several countries such as Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban coined the phrase “illiberal democracy”, and neighbouring Poland, where there has been a dramatic attack on reproductive rights. In Russia too, women’s rights are under threat, as shown by a recent attempt to partly decriminalise domestic violence.

Another thing these countries have in common is that the political backlash against gender equality coincides with a strong role for women in the workplace. Fodor describes a contradiction between the rightwing political discourse and pragmatic economic policy.

“It’s in the economic interests of most East European countries to encourage women to be in the labour market as there’s a shortage of skilled labour and women tend to be highly skilled in this region,” she says. “So while there’s a political rhetoric that encourages women to stay home and have a large number of children, at the same time economic interests push governments to give incentives to women to join the labour market.”

Not all countries are in this situation. “Governments set a tone, and that tone is an important one in society. In Croatia, where Jadranka Kosor served as prime minister and the president is now Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, there are many women in senior positions in companies, a few are running companies,” says Ruhe. “I felt this was one place where women were more advanced. Croatia has really made an effort to adopt European values and modernise the way of things, which I think is why women were able to be central in politics.”

Meanwhile, Viks points out that the Estonian government responded to the BPW’s campaign for equal pay; they have now launched a new campaign to try to get more women onto the boards of state companies. However, she acknowledges that the government has been slow to invite the BPW to give its views on economic policy. The national and local governments should involve women entrepreneurs more, she stresses, pointing out that when it comes to policy consultations “it is very rare that we are called, more often we are inviting ourselves”.

In Russia, Gvilava says the government pays “great attention” to entrepreneurship development, and many of the new development institutes are headed by women.

A strong role for women in the workplace doesn't always line up with western influence or economic development. “The most active women entrepreneurs, which may seem strange, are in the North Caucasian Federal District of Russia,” says Gvilava, pointing to examples such as the female head of a Chechen cement plant and those at the helm of a number of smaller factories.

In Tajikistan, with its wide gender gap and Islamic traditions, Mirzobakhodurova says the government has taken on board the importance of raising the economic status of the female population. “We regularly provide them with success stories, and they have realised that women play an important role not only in social life but in the economic life of the country.”


Support from governments and international organisations have been identified as important to supporting women entrepreneurs and helping them found and grow their businesses. Another critical factor is networking.

“We are seeing more and more efforts for women to help each other in very significant ways in terms of human capital, not only in this region but in other parts of the developing world, there is investment into mentoring, sponsoring, women-led organisations and conferences,” says Anderson.

However, she adds that female-focussed networking is not enough; men – who typically hold the top positions in both business and governments – need to be involved too. Encouragingly, she notes that “many men ask me what they can do to support women in business”.

Fodor also reports the presence of numerous women’s business networking organisations. “Many countries in the region are not particularly well organised in terms of feminist movements but I see quite a few events to encourage women in business,” she says. “Of all the gender-related areas, this is one where there is some action.” In future this could be the key to carving out more space for women in the economic sphere – even at the very top levels of business success. 

This is part of bne IntelliNews' special cover feature on the top business figures in Central and Eastern Europe, published in our May magazine.  The full magazine can be viewed here