The myth of women’s equality in the East

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Reality check: Equal opportunities in Eastern Europe

Olga Grygier-Siddons’ memories of her first day as chief executive officer are all positive – primarily due to the reactions of her female staff. The way they smiled at Grygier-Siddons in the lift, how very proudly they walked down the corridors “was a great feeling”, the manager told the Financial Times last year. She has been head of the Eastern Europe division of the global business and management consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) since 2014. The reason she was given such a warm welcome by her female colleagues at the PwC office in Warsaw may be due to the fact that they haven’t seen many female bosses: not in Poland and even fewer in the other countries that have recently joined or aspire to join the EU.

8 March is International Women’s Day. Socialist-oriented countries in particular celebrate this day in style, putting the spotlight on women. And once it’s over? The common narrative suggests that the position of women in the East is better than in the West in many ways – both politically and economically. After all, socialist governments in the past had provided more equal opportunities for women, supported their careers and organised universal childcare provision. There were, in fact, numerous female engineers in the East. But to what extent do these measures still have an impact today?


The EU Commission has set the goal of providing day-care facilities for at least one third of European children under the age of three. In fact, however, most of them stay at home with their mums. In only ten Member States do toddlers spend time in nurseries or with childminders, above all in Scandinavian countries. Of the more recent EU Member States, Slovenia is the only one to join the ranks of these countries. The rest is at the other end of the scale. Ironically, in Romania, Poland and Slovakia – countries that before 1989 boasted a well-established network of state-run childcare facilities – 90 per cent of children under three stay at home. In Romania and Poland, traditional role models dictated by the Church probably also play a role in this context.


After World War II the Soviet Union’s influence in the region prevented the former – male-dominated – interwar elites from returning to power and curtailed the position of religion. With the political landscape being reshaped, there was room for women: between 1945 and 1950 eleven female ministers were appointed in Bulgaria, Romania and what was then Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia as well as in Estonia. All the same, most women still did not wield any power – from the 1960s there were not even government posts available for them. An exception was Milka Planinc, who was head of the Yugoslav government in the 1980s.

Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the young democracies initially left little room for women’s development. Women’s representation in politics did not increase until the countries moved towards Europe. In today’s more recent EU Member States, 157 women held ministerial offices from 1999 to 2009. In other words, it is the recent past rather than the socialist legacy that grants women access to power. According to political scientist Maxime Forest from SciencesPo University in Paris, it was precisely these steps towards the EU that helped give women more space: owing to the EU’s appeal, the question of equal opportunities was at least put on the political agenda. In some cases the “feminisation of politics” served as proof of the commitment to Europe – a trump card that could be deployed in Brussels. And sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. In the impending parliamentary elections in Hungary, the ruling Fidesz party is putting forward one candidate for each of the 106 constituencies – of these only six are women.


Eighty to ninety per cent of women in socialist countries were integrated into the labour market in the late 1980s – although they were rarely able to advance into the upper reaches of the job hierarchy. And they earned significantly less than men: 20 to 30 per cent less money appeared on women’s payslips at that time. Female employees in Slovenia, Poland and Romania have left this behind them today – in these countries women earn almost as much as men. The rate of women working part-time is also relatively low. Things are different in Austria, for instance, where just under half of the female population does not work full time – resulting in a relatively large pay gap. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, this divide is particularly dramatic, with women earning only half as much as men. What’s more, the Gender Equality Index of the European Institute for Gender Equality shows that women in the recent Member States, but also in Austria, have little economic power overall. They rarely sit on company boards or run institutions such as national banks.

Three years ago Česká spořitelna, the Czech subsidiary of Erste Group, appointed Daniela Pešková as its first female board member since its privatisation in 2000. Mariana Gheorghe, who has headed natural gas company Petrom in Romania for many years, will soon vacate her office. Gheorghe has run the business of the Austrian OMV subsidiary for more than ten years. The grande dame of the Romanian business elite will be succeeded by another woman, Christina Verchere. Women on the Petrom board are thus nothing unusual. The business consultants of PricewaterhouseCoopers have also long got used to Olga Grygier-Siddons. These women at the top, however, constitute an exception: in Eastern Europe and in large parts of the West.

Original in German. Translated into English by Barbara Maya.

This text and infographics are published under the Creative Commons License: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. The name of the author/rights holder should be mentioned as followed. Author: Eva Konzett /, infographics & illustration: Vanja Ivancevic /
Cover picture: © nito100/iStock.

Of People and Numbers – Eastern Europe in your pocket

Fourteen years have passed since the European Union set off towards the east. The initial euphoria first gave way to day-to-day life and has now turned into disillusionment on both sides. In some places people have become or remained strangers, despite visible and hidden relationships, and personal, official and business relationships. Despite the numerous similarities and the value chains that now know no borders. And sometimes precisely because of them.

Of People and Numbers aims to highlight the political, economic, cultural and social realities of life in the newer members of the EU and the accession states of South-Eastern Europe on a small scale and compare them to Western European realities, at least as they appear in Austria. Are the two really always miles apart? When does the view from above fall short?

When preconceptions are put aside, a different world emerges. Of People and Numbers brings this world to you in images, figures and words. A monthly serving of Eastern Europe. Delivered to your smartphone each month.