Women in Central European Politics. Seen but Not Heard?

Less than nineteen percent. Such striking underrepresentation of women in Central European national parliaments can be compared only to the Arab States.

Less than nineteen percent. That is, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union database, the proportion of women in V4 national parliaments, combined. It is less than the world’s average of 22.8%. Interestingly enough, there are big differences among Visegrad Group countries: with over 27% of its MPs being women, Poland scores best. However, the average for the V4 is pulled down by Hungary, where women hold 9.6% of seats in the parliament. Such striking underrepresentation of women in Central European national parliaments can be compared only to… the Arab States, where 18.4% of MPs are women.1

There are other disquieting illustrations of women’s position in Central European politics. Since 1989, only three women (Hanna Suchocka, Ewa Kopacz, and Beata Szydło) have led the Polish government (out of the total of 15 prime ministers). In Slovakia, only one woman made it to the top post (Iveta Radičová). And no women have ever held the office of prime minister in Hungary or the Czech Republic. “There have never been any women presidents in the V4 countries, no matter the electoral system,” adds Veronika Šprincová, a prominent Czech researcher.2

Let us state it clearly: underrepresentation of women in politics is unequivocally a bad thing. Any meaningful, functioning democracy should aim at achieving closest possible representation of the population in all political bodies. That is, after all, what liberal democracy is about.

Any meaningful, functioning democracy should aim at achieving closest possible representation of the population in all political bodies. That is, after all, what liberal democracy is about.

Decisions Made without Women

In most European countries (and Central Europe is not an exception), women constitute roughly half of the population. Of course, one can argue that men can represent women and their views. Theoretically, yes. But politics is not limited to the technical act of conveying the message. Politics is debate, politics is emotion and feelings. On many occasions, women instincts, different from men’s instincts, bring added value to the debate. Take the extremely controversial subject of reproductive rights as an example: can anyone imagine a meaningful discussion on this topic without women being present? Well, that is exactly what happens in many Central European countries.

Petr Pavlík, a Czech scholar at Charles University in Prague, pointed out that male politicians not only discuss the issues concerning women without women. Worse: they are making decisions “without their better knowledge.”3

Why is that? In the author’s view, it is predominantly because of the cultural DNA of the Central European countries, tradition built over generations. Although we live in the 21st century, in this part of Europe women are still discriminated against, only in more subtle ways – but nearly as efficient as the former, long-gone ways of physical discrimination. It starts in the early years of elementary education. “The differentiated treatment of girls and boys at every stage of their education is not accidental. It is a well-entrenched tradition, based on the social stereotypes reproduced over generations,” claims Anna Mateja, a publicist specialized in the matter.4 Even the smallest of gestures count, like the teacher’s disapproval for boys choosing the color pink while drawing. “Pink? That’s for girls,” Mateja quotes authentic reaction from a certain Polish school.

Although we live in the 21st century, in this part of Europe women are still discriminated against, only in more subtle ways – but nearly as efficient as the former, long-gone ways of physical discrimination.

Cultural Reasons

In most pre-schools and kindergartens, girls are automatically given dolls and mini-kitchens, boys get cars and castles. The more important stuff. Surely, such phenomena is not only limited to Poland nor to the Central European countries. It happens everywhere – as a recent study published in the US proves.5 The study in question demonstrates that young children are particularly vulnerable to the psychological imprint, like the idea that brilliance is more common in men. The point is, Mateja and other scholars say, that this kind of brainwashing is particularly widespread in our region due to the cultural reasons.

Later in the educational and professional pipeline, the pink crayon ceases to be the problem. Other things are: even in the start-up environment of the IT industry, the most modern branch of the economy, young women suffer heavy patronizing. Kasia Gola, a young entrepreneur and graduate of the AGH (one of the best-known universities of technology in Poland), recalls her own experiences from the start-up she cofounded – her male colleagues would find it appropriate to joke about the only programming skill women should possess: washing-machine programming.6 Such anecdotic situations recall a relatively unknown story from 1891, when a certain Maria Skłodowska, a young and ambitious Polish physicist, finally gave up applying for a research post at the University of Cracow. Her candidature was refused many times, obviously for no other reason than her gender. Fortunately for her (and for the science), she was accepted by the University of Paris – Sorbonne. 10 years later she won the Nobel Prize in Physics, followed by a 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The Absence of Women in Politics in Central Europe is Interlinked with Religion

The deeply entrenched discrimination of women is reflected in the Polish media too. A few years ago an activist group Espertki.org published the findings of a media study conducted between April 2014 and March 2015.7 In this study, all TV and radio opinion-making programs were analyzed. As it turned out, out of 64 4 guests invited to these programs, only 126 were women. Worse still, some men have been invited on multiple occasions. Authors of the study counted the number of appearances: all in all, 3206 for men, 493 for women. Only 13% of all TV appearances!

The cultural roots of the relative absence of women in politics in Central Europe are closely interlinked—to the point of being indistinguishable—with the context of religion, a powerful culture-creating factor in this part of the world. It is hard to overestimate the influence of Roman Catholicism on the formation of the Polish cultural DNA.

The cultural roots of the relative absence of women in politics in Central Europe are closely interlinked with the context of religion, a powerful culture-creating factor in this part of the world.

In the living tradition of the Polish Catholic church (understood as the whole community of believers, not only the hierarchy), women have been always idolized in a very specific way, illustrated by the admiration of Mary, the Blessed Virgin, Mother of God. The Roman Catholic version of Christianity rather clearly defines the model role for women: mothers and wives, sometimes saints, achieving sanctity through utter subordination, sacrifice, fidelity, and acceptance of their role. Apparently, Roman Catholic Church takes the word of the Bible seriously: “Women are to remain quiet in the assemblies, since they have no permission to speak: theirs is a subordinate part, as the Law itself says. If there is anything they want to know, they should ask their husbands at home: it is shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly.”8

An Obligatory Quota System Could Break a Trend

Because women are so strongly identified with motherhood and household-keeping, the general public instinctively expects them to focus on children and daily chores before engaging into any sort of public activity. This unspoken expectation is so strong that even ambitious women, those who try to enter the political arena, feel compelled to be good mothers and wives first, politicians second. “It is reflected in public opinion polls. Asked why women are underrepresented in politics, both Polish men and women point out to the fact that household chores are distributed unevenly and that the obligation to merge many different roles, put on women shoulders, is the biggest obstacle to the equality in politics,” says Professor Małgorzata Fuszara, renowned researcher in gender studies and Council of Europe expert.9

There is only one way to break this trend. Central European democracies need a top-down intervention in the form of changes in the electoral law: the introduction of the obligatory quota system.

Such approach is often criticized, mostly by men (but not only). In the Czech Republic, the leader of the second biggest coalition party, Andrej Babiš, called gender quotas “nonsense.” Babiš’s fellow deputy prime minister added that any gender quotas would be “anti-constitutional.”10 The main argument of those who oppose the quota system is the following: women should not be artificially pushed into politics, all candidacies in any elections must be merit-based, not sex-based. Some women active in politics tend to say that their electoral success was their own, build on hard work and right ideas. Opponents of the quota system also note that quota system limits voters’ rights – their freedom of deciding whom they wish to vote for.

Central European democracies need a top-down intervention in the form of changes in the electoral law: the introduction of the obligatory quota system.

Poland Is a Leader in Women’s Participation in Politics

However, these arguments cannot hide the simple truth: quota system works. Women, Fuszara says, should actively and relentlessly fight for it. “The belief that the equality of men and women in politics will happen naturally, by itself, is groundless,” she writes.11

Out of V4 countries, it has been introduced in Poland. Polish quota system requires that no less than 35% of female (or male) candidates have to be on the ballot paper. As a result, Poland stays above Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia in terms of women participation in politics (27% of all MPs are women). Some type of gender quota is used in 10 out of the 11 EU countries where women make up for more than 30% of their national parliaments.12

Out of V4 countries, it has been introduced in Poland. Polish quota system requires that no less than 35% of female (or male) candidates have to be on the ballot paper.

One should note, though, that even the quota system can be circumvented if it is badly constructed. In many cases, the change in the electoral law (the one introducing the quotas) does not specify how the positions on the list should be filled in. In consequence, few women are given the top positions, resulting in weaker electoral results for women than for men. To prevent this, the quota system (the minimal number of female candidates) should be accompanied by some provisions specifying the rules related to the ballot list composition. Some parties, like the Civic Platform of Poland, introduced such “ZIP fastener” mechanism (as it is sometimes called) internally and on voluntary basis. In the 2015 parliamentary elections, 41% of all the top three positions on Civic Platform’s ballot lists was given to women. A country record, so far. Still, it is not a reason to celebrate. According to the Polish Statistical Office, the population ratio of men to women was 100:107 in 2015.13 In plain language: there are noticeably more women than men in Poland. Not so in the parliament, nor even in the biggest liberal party. Again, one cannot help quoting the biblical: “Women are to be seen, not heard.”


1. Šprincová, V. 2016. Men in charge: V4 politics still a men’s club. V4Revue.

2. Ibidem.

3. Pavlík, P. Rozhovory o ženách v politice. Forum 50%, http://padesatprocent.cz/cz/rozhovory-o-zenach-v-politice-petr-pavlik accessed at 21 September 2017.

4. Mateja, A. 2017. Przecież różową kredką to tylko dziewczyny. “Instytut Idei”, Winter/Spring 2017, nr 12, 28.

5. Davis, N. Girls believe brilliance is a male trait, research into gender stereotypes shows. “The Guardian”, 27 January 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/jan/26/girls-believe-brilliance-is-a-male-trait-research-into-gender-stereotypes-shows, accessed at 21 September 2016.

6. Gola, K. 2017. Analogowy stereotyp kobiety. „Instytut Idei”, Winter/Spring 2017, nr 12, 86.

7. Media bez kobiet. Ekspertki.org, http://ekspertki.org/wiecejo-ekspertki-org/ accessed at 21 September 2017.

8. 1 Cor 14: 34, 35 (see: http://www.catholic.org/bible/book.php?bible_chapter=14&id=53) accessed at 21 September 2017.

9. Fuszara, M. 2017. Wielkie nieobecne. “Instytut Idei”, Winter/Spring 2017, nr 12, 56.

10. Šprincová, V. Men in charge: V4 politics still a men’s club. V4Revue, 2 August 2016, http://visegradrevue.eu/men-in-charge-v4-politics-still-a-mens-club/ accessed at on 20 September 2017.

11. Fuszara, M. 2017. Wielkie nieobecne. “Instytut Idei”, Winter/Spring 2017, nr 12, 56.

12. Šprincová, V. Men in charge: V4 politics still a men’s club. V4Revue, 2 August 2016, http://visegradrevue.eu/men-in-charge-v4-politics-still-a-mens-club/ accessed at on 20 September 2017.

13. Central Statistical Office of Poland, Structure of the population by 2015, http://stat.gov.pl/en/topics/population/population/structure-of-the-population-by-2015,7,1.html accessed at 20 September 2017.

Konrad Niklewicz

Konrad Niklewicz is currently the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies Visiting Research Fellow and managing director of the Civic Institute and a guest lecturer at the University of Warsaw. He previously served as Spokesperson for the Polish Presidency of the Council of the EU and Undersecretary of State at the Ministry of Regional Development. Previously he was a journalist and editor of the Gazeta Wyborcza.

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Women In Power

Women are still underrepresented in traditional functions and institutions of power. What is the chief factor barring female political and public engagement? How is changing the feminist agenda? Why are women marching again in different parts of the world? 21st century inherited deeply-rooted gender-biased assumptions. You can also download this issue (pdf).