A grim future for women in politics in Eastern Europe?

Women worldwide face a hostile environment when striving to reach executive-level positions in politics. In Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, history adds to these already muddy waters. Despite the complex situation, there is hope for female gender representation with the USSR in the rear-view mirror.

Backslides in women’s rights in CEE countries in recent years raise questions about what events led to this and if politics is male dominated in the region. Gender representation—the ratio of women to men in politics—has been a hot topic of debate, tying into a bigger discussion about gender equality.

Worldwide, there are more women in politics than ever before. This is the case in CEE countries too, although figures vary regionally. Social scientists researching in this field have found that there are many factors that influence gender representation. These could be, for instance, the historical baggage left behind by the spontaneous combustion of the Soviet Union.

Most researchers agree that the USSR’s legacy still leaves a big footprint in the region nowadays. The state played a big role in everyday life and promoted people’s complacency, rather than activism. And while some women held roles high up in state apparatuses, they could rarely make decisions on their own—and certainly not those that carried a large impact.

That is one of the reasons why scholars such as Jiřina Šiklová from Charles University in Prague think that women’s organisations did not really take off in CEE countries as they did in the United States. It is not that women in post-Soviet Europe do not support women’s rights or more egalitarian policies: there is a blend of reasons at play, from old Soviet mindsets to a male-entrenched economy.

The collapse of the USSR made economies in the region face a reckoning: they had to move from a state-run, micromanaged behemoth to a capitalist one. A report from UNIFEM, now of part of UNWOMEN—the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women—reflects economic trends at that time. The proportion of women with active jobs declined during the post-Soviet transition. Jobs were no longer provided by the state and women had to take on low-paying side jobs to make ends meet.

The collapse of the USSR heralded a time of new opportunities, but also labour market decline for women. A rally in Moscow in 1990. (Credit: Konstantin Gushcha / Shutterstock.com)

It is worth keeping in mind that CEE countries do have similarities, but also their differences. They share a common past, but this past varied significantly from Poland to Yugoslavia. Similarly, public debate about gender representation and women’s role in society—which is becoming more progressive—depends on where you are. In Poland, abortion rights were talked about the most whereas politicians in the Balkans suggested having male to female quotas in politics.

Some studies suggest that the kind of political system your country has matters. If you were a woman trying to get into politics, you would choose countries with left-leaning governments. This applies to most countries worldwide, but curiously is not the case for the ex-Soviet bloc. Here, right-leaning political parties seem to favour female over male candidates.

But even if a party’s colour on the political spectrum can help, it does not remove the barriers women have to routinely charge through to reach executive-level positions. Women face a daily barrage of sexism, male-dominated workplaces, social preconceptions and unfavourable childcare policies to name a few. These are not unique to politics, but are something all women unfortunately encounter every day to succeed in similar environments.

Even with plenty of research in the field of female gender representation, many scholars cannot agree on all the causes and effects of today’s playing field. Central and Eastern Europe is a region bursting with variation and nuance: it is clear that many different events led to where we stand today in female gender representation.

Researchers might not agree about many things, but they certainly nod their heads towards more studies in gender representation in CEE countries. Many people have studied other parts of the world, but we need to look further into how factors interplay in Central and Eastern Europe’s unique political and social fabric.

One of the many protests in Hungary taking place in recent years, this one in 2017, where we have observed a backslide in democracy and the role of women. (Credit: Drone Media Studio / Shutterstock.com)

Will women play a bigger role in CEE countries’ politics? It seems increasingly likely. Much progress has been made since the early 1990s. Many of the Eastern bloc countries have now joined the EU, which has galvanised support for more progressive thinking.

With this also comes inspiration from Western partners: taking one look at Finland’s all-female coalition government can push Eastern counterparts in a similar direction. Many of those living in CEE countries see more women in power in the future, according to a Gallup poll.  Is the future grim? That seems unlikely. The foundations of more open, more cosmopolitan societies are there. There is just a lot more work to build politics in this region further.

Ondrej Gomola

2 November 2021

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