Central European Women in the Vanguard of Change

Women in Central Europe have long played an important role in the home and also in public spaces. Centuries of fighting for independence, defending against the Nazis and the communists have meant that women in this part of Europe have emancipated themselves in many fields relatively quickly compared to other parts of the world.

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Photo: iStock.com / kieferpix

Bertha von Suttner is seen today as one of the icons of the pacifist movement. She was born in Prague in the mid-19th century. In 1889, after publishing her book “Die Waffen nieder!” (Lay Down Your Arms!), she became a prominent figure in anti-war activities in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She became very influential; her work was translated into 12 languages. Consequently, she was the first woman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize in 1905.

Women Emancipation in Central Europe

Although the Nobel Prize had been established only five years earlier, the Countess (her formal title) von Suttner was not the first woman to receive one. Before her was Maria Skłodowska-Curie, the scientist from Poland, who was given this award (along with her husband, Pierre Curie) for achievements in the field of physics, their attainments prove that the women of the Central European countries have been at the vanguard of social change from the start.

For centuries women lived in the shadow of men. While their fathers, husbands, and sons held public offices and key positions in the business sphere, they tended to take care of the home. But when things started to change, the women of the CEE countries led the way.

Joanna Żubr was one of the first (if not the first) women to receive a military decoration worldwide in 1812. Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu from Romania was the first woman in Europe who obtained (in 1912) a diploma as an engineer. Savka Dabčević-Kučar was the first woman who was appointed prime minister in Europe. In 1967 she became the chief of the government of the Socialist Republic of Croatia.

Of course, Croatia was only a part of Yugoslavia. Besides, it was an authoritarian regime, not a democratic country – but the first fully sovereign prime minister in Democratic Europe was Margaret Thatcher, chosen over ten years later, in 1979. Another example is that the ladies of Central Europe have long been at the vanguard of social change. This is also happening today.

Central European countries improve diversity

After the II World War, gender equality has become one of the main demands of modern times. Relations between men and women are now seen as one of the main measures of the civilizational development of individual countries. Indicators of balance between sexes have also described the development of the world. “Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world” – is written on the webpage of the United Nations in the description of its Sustainable Development Goals.

Looking at various statistics, it is easy to see that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are doing at least well in terms of maintaining a proper gender balance. For instance, in the category described by the UN in its development goals as “give women equal rights to economic resources.” Data provided by Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) from 2020 show that countries from the 3 Seas Initiative are leaders in some economic classifications.

Gender wage gap in CEE

Suppose we take into account the gender wage gap statistics. In the EU, on average, women earn 10.3% less than men. But in France, this difference rises to 11.8%, in the Netherlands – to 13.3%, in Germany – to 14.2%, and in Cyprus – to 16.6%. But in Bulgaria gender wage gap practically does not exist – the difference is at the level of 2.6%. In Romania, women earn only 3.3% less. In Croatia – 7.6%, in Poland – 8.7%, in Lithuania – 9.3%.

“Many companies in CEE have made efforts to improve diversity and inclusion internally,” – wrote consulting firm McKinsey in the report “Win-Win. How empowering women can benefit Central and Eastern Europe”, adding that women in CEE countries are still underrepresented in managerial positions when compared to Western states.



Gender balance of ambitions

One of the conclusions of the McKinsey report – based on the survey in CEE countries – underlines one thing: “Women are as ambitious as men.” It is perfectly evident in the field of education. Women living in Central Europe are very willing to start and finish higher school. According to statistics from OECD, on average, in EU countries, 14% more women finish their studies than men. But in Lithuania, this difference rises to 23%, in Latvia and Slovenia – to 21%, and in Poland – to 20%. Below the EU average are Germany (3% more women enter universities), France (7%), Netherlands (10%), and Spain (12%).

The domination of women is seen in such professions as doctors. On average, in OECD countries, 49% of women provide treatment. But in Estonia and Latvia, this percentage rises to 74%. In Slovenia – 63%, Slovakia –58%, and Poland –57%. Below the OECD average is Luxemburg (36% of doctors in this country are women), Greece (43%), Italy (44%), Belgium (45%), France (46%), and Germany (48%). A clear signal that women from Central Europe are hungry for success in life which they equate with higher education.

But all these examples describe only a narrow fragment of reality. To have a broad view, you must look at the bigger picture. It was provided by a Eurostat survey in 2019. Women from EU countries were asked about gender discrimination. On average, 37.1% of Europeans answered that it is widespread in their countries.

Central European Women Emancipation

But the devil is in the details. Women from Western European countries felt more discriminated against than women from Central Europe. For instance, 55.3% of women in France thought they were treated unfairly, as well as 43,1% of Belgians, 41.3% of Spaniards, or 38.1% of Italians. On the other side of the scale, we have only 15.1% of Slovakian women who feel discriminated against. The same goes for 27.2% of Czech women, 33.8% of Estonians, 35.5% of Bulgarians, and 35.8% of Austrians.

It cannot be ruled out that this markedly lower sense of discrimination stems from the fact that women in Central Europe have long played an essential role in the home and public spaces. Centuries of fighting for independence, dealing with successive invasions, and defending against Nazis or Communists have meant that women in this part of Europe have emancipated themselves in many fields relatively quickly – compared to other parts of the world.  

It is no coincidence that it was in this part of Europe that the feminist movement began to emerge as early as the 19th century, that the CEE countries were among the first to grant women the right to vote in the 20th century. 

“I love being a woman, and I was not one of these women who rose through professional life by wearing men’s clothes or looking masculine. I loved wearing bright colors and being who I am,” said Madeleine Albright, former US secretary of state, who was born in Prague and raised by Czechoslovakian parents. Many women living in Central Europe think of themselves in a similar way.

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