Women in Politics

Women’s representation in Slovak electoral politics, governance, and executive suites has been persistently low and currently displays a downward trend. The Slovak situation is fully comparable with the levels of female representation across all of the so-called transition countries.

Occupancy analysis of managing positions and public offices within major institutions and organizations has clearly shown that the national figures for the women’s representation at the top level of public life are straightforwardly low. With the exception of social affairs departments and units as well as the so-called “minor” ministries, women are heavily under-represented in top executive positions.

Such female under-representation in the sites of power, decision-making, influence (and wealth) persisted over the 1990s. At that, the following pattern universally prevailed: the higher the place on the candidate list (with its higher electoral chances), the weaker female representation. The analysis of partisan structures and their bodies has confirmed the claimed trend that the more significant the partisan job involved, the more modest proportion of women involved.

The Major Reasons for the Indicated Handicap in the Slovak Republic

Female occupancy of leading political positions is markedly disproportional relative to the real number of female members in individual political parties. (Political parties in Slovakia, it might be helpful to notice, are typically distinguished by small membership and as such basically rely for getting elected into the Parliament on their constituencies rather than on their partisan members). To put it metaphorically, the female political involvement in Slovakia follows the “political funnel” principle: women are reasonably well represented as the rank-and-file of their respective political parties with a deplorably dropping trend as one takes a look at the composition of partisan governing bodies and higher-level offices.

To put it metaphorically, the female political involvement in Slovakia follows the “political funnel” principle.

The said political leakage can be tracked down to a series of factors:

1. Differing and differentiating promotion/vertical mobility mechanisms operating inside political structures of separate political parties in Slovakia. It holds for all political parties in the Slovak Republic that “less significant positions (a party’s local organization chairperson, local parliaments – communal politics and public jobs at a district level) are filled through clear-cut and transparent mechanisms and according to definite rules (elections), whereas more prominent posts are occupied pursuant to political bargaining and decisions.” The key criterion for placing a candidate’s name on a party ticket is either his or her popularity with the general public or their high personal profile as a public figure or an outstanding professional. In politics, the publicly known figures, thanks to the media coverage, are, above all, people in senior executive positions. This, understandably enough, goes counter to the equal opportunity principle, putting potential female claimants for top public jobs at a disadvantage as being insufficiently known among the general public.

2. The factor of “dual status” (or personal “doubling” of top partisan positions and leading posts in public policymaking) may, in this perspective, be fairly essential. What is involved here is, in fact, a sort of a vicious circle: “winning” places on party tickets are preferentially reserved for the representatives of top echelons of public administration who are simultaneously wielders of leadership partisan offices, habitually attainable by prominent public figures (on the grounds of election preferences).

3. The regretful consequence of the realities delineated above is that natural, traditional, and social mobility from lower to higher posts (whether within political structures or through involvement in communal politics) stands considerably slimmer chances (at times even a zero chance) of success.

4. Female promotion opportunities in the Slovak Republic are not typically affected by ideological (left/right) bias of a respective political party. These, however, may be significantly cropped depending on the party’s influence, its membership size as well as whether this or that political alignment appears in the election on its own or as a part of a pre-election coalition. The more sizeable the coalition, the slighter are chances of fair female representation on ‘winning’ places of respective party tickets. In both cases, success chances for women through the classical promotion mechanism are also diminished, and so do their career opportunities and motivation to enter politics and shape the public agenda.

5. It is as good for politics as for other sectors of public life that women commonly can only aspire to and occupy financially less attractive posts (for the mere reason that males are less keen on getting them than better rewarded and more high-profile jobs). In other words, women have to remain content with jobs either at lower levels of office or involving responsibility for smaller financial transactions and much less handsomely rewarded ones, too.

Female promotion opportunities in the Slovak Republic are not typically affected by ideological (left/right) bias of a respective political party.

6. Women would be habitually most successful in securing a leadership position in the situations of emergence and formation of new political entities. Yet, once these come to be established political parties, there is hardly any other viable promotion avenue to follow for women than to attempt at a promotion leap, as it were. This lies in adopting the policy of “becoming a publicly known personality beyond political structures” (whether as an outstanding woman-professional or an otherwise newsworthy figure) in addition to issuing clear-cut signals of your commitment to get involved and make a contribution in the area of public administration and community service. True, there is always another avenue to follow for a woman to gain her career ends. It is the so-called “social-relaxing” road, which amounts to the notoriously known “the right time, right place, and right person or people” recipe for success.

Women turn out to be less motivated in terms of entering electoral politics than men, displaying less will for gaining power, too. This weakened “political drive” may be blamed on a number of reasons:

7. The ways in which high politics is done and the quality of political culture. Many women would give up a significant elected office, because as often as not they perceive high politics in terms of “aggression, vulgarity, ignorance, deception, betrayal, envy, and careerism.” On these grounds, they would dismiss as untoward an environment where, instead of real politics of sorting out citizen’s problems, unbridled politicking reigns supreme. By way of negative examples of the “system’s power and the individual engulfed by it,” there are oftentimes cited women who, for the sake of their career, have chosen to conform to the tough rules of a “men’s world,” eventually metamorphosing into worse political hyenas than their male colleagues.

Women would be habitually most successful in securing a leadership position in the situations of emergence and formation of new political entities.

8. The risks and losses involved (which women tend to feel very strong about) are perceived by them as the price of success in joining electoral politics. These involve abandonment of their profession, profound changes to their lifestyles quite often accompanied by a necessity to move to another city or live separately from their family during workdays, being deprived of leisure and privacy and, most importantly, a loss of entitlement to many welfare benefits. The new, very peculiar environment of top politics is not particularly conducive, if at all, to forming new friendships or finding new social networks. The original social links would gradually get disrupted to leave a woman in a social void. In the Slovak context, informal relationships tend to be all the more important given the poorly functioning professional structures supposed to assist a politician in his/her work – human resources management, logistics, information system, training and re-training programs, on-going further education with the emphasis on politics and political systems, operation of our public administration and performance of its individual institutions. Women who enter electoral politics and public policymaking can only get first knowledge of the new environment via the notoriously costly and painful trial-and-error method – learning from one’s own mistakes. Thus, dreams of a career in public administration would, with many a woman, fail to outweigh the dish with the listed costs incurred.

The new, very peculiar environment of top politics is not particularly conducive, if at all, to forming new friendships or finding new social networks.

9. The persisting traditionalism, prejudices, and stereotypes. Women in political employment themselves would confirm and perpetuate commonly held assumptions concerning the place and status of women in this country. They would confirm the traditional division of labor, starkly segregating male and female responsibilities as well as (stereo)typical female and male jobs not only in the household but also in the sphere of politics and leadership. Each woman will inevitably find herself between the horns of the dilemma “political career vs. the family and home.” Favoring the former is typically perceived as a deviance from the accepted norm, a benign one at best.

The family and young children remain the chief factor barring female political and public engagement.

10. The analysis of many interviews gives credit to the endurance of traditional gender-based role-types, which tend to be internalized and circulated even by the female politicians themselves. Slovakia being a tradition-abiding country with the prevalence of rural social structures shaping behavioral patterns of its population, it is small surprise that traditional role-oriented behavior is significantly encouraged and pursued. For most of Slovakia’s population, the family is of tremendous value; caring for its members and the home is still assumed to be a woman’s primary mission. Alternative models, naturally, are not to be easily asserted in the midst of such overwhelming support for the traditional values.

11. No major confirmation has been reported to the over-optimistic hypothesis that the increasing modernization of the most immediate environment might raise rates of female representation in political offices and public administration. It used to be hoped that a more liberal environment would prove more generous to executive women. And yet, the monitoring of communities with women heads has unambiguously pointed to the fact that female leaders, paradoxically enough, have been elected in more traditional communities. The only differential criteria seems to be the community’s size; women have been elected as leaders across smaller communities with a high percentage of elderly inhabitants and therefore with a considerably limited choice of candidates for the vacancy.

12. It seems at times that the mechanisms filtering female aspirants for political and executive posts are other than a competition of merits, abilities, and platforms. Very often, women would only be given the aspired post in the absence of any male claimant or when the male applicant demonstrates markedly inferior qualifications to those of his female co-runner.

13. Family responsibilities, which even women in politics regard as their top priority, tend to attenuate responsibilities following from political and public commitments. They are universally and commonly perceived as a major obstacle barring access to politics, irrespective of the woman’s political position, partisan affiliations, or membership.

14. A woman cannot afford to enter politics without her spouse’s consent, as well as that of other family members. Most often, she would be allowed to take this step on condition that “the family is not hurt.” For these women, then, entering politics suggests adding further burdens to their many household chores and family responsibilities (and to their gainful employment imperatives on the local level). An unqualified support on the part of the male partner has been but rarely reported.

Each woman will inevitably find herself between the horns of the dilemma “political career vs. the family and home.”

15. The partner’s qualified consent to his wife’s entering politics or public policymaking hides further plausible explanations shedding light on women’s low engagement in these sectors of public life; they simply fear prospective family conflicts (the husband might get angry with her or refuse to tolerate her absence from the home) and, frankly speaking, are mistrustful of their spouses’ capability of taking over and reliably shouldering part of the family and household responsibilities.

The monitoring of communities with women heads has unambiguously pointed to the fact that female leaders, paradoxically enough, have been elected in more traditional communities.

16. In Slovakia, politics is commonly perceived as a sphere of activities and commitments which are nothing for mothers with young children. This restricting condition has been, on the one hand, declared by executive women and women policymakers themselves, on the other, confirmed by the analysis of the composition of the group of women under consideration. Women to be found in Slovak politics and public policymaking are overwhelmingly single, without children, or with grown-up children. The proportion of women with young children, who are engaged in public affairs and politics on the local level, is somewhat higher.

17. The conflict “family vs. public activism” seems more resolvable on the local level owing to the possibility of staying in daily contact with the family and to the support and help extended by the usually extensive family net works (parents, parents-in-law, and other family relations).

Women to be found in Slovak politics and public policymaking are overwhelmingly single, without children, or with grown-up children.

18. Caring for the household would be quite often partly taken over by family members, though the bulk of the chores remains the wife’s weekend responsibility. This, understandably, piles on additional (and disproportional) strain on a publicly active woman.

19. Cases have been reported where women’s public activities have had very adversely affected her family members (gossip, verbal offences, disrupted communication with neighbors and former friends, etc.). As soon as a woman enters a public office, the life of her entire family is publicized (home visits of the constituency happening anytime and so on).

20. Women respondents reported minimal family tradition of political activism; the Slovak high politics boasts only one such instance, whereas the communal level has shown more instances of the “political bug” running in the family blood. (“My grandfather used to be the local leader.”) Women would seldom cite the political problems in the parents’ family as a plausible trigger. (“Father’s problems with the Communist Party…”) Within the male sample, however, such negative family experience with politics would feature prominently and be declared immediately responsible for the man’s entering of politics.

A woman in political employment, therefore, has to cope with the responsibilities for the family and political career imperatives, which is easier said than done.

Responsibility for the Family and Political Career Imperatives

The problem of low female representation in politics is not, in the context of Slovakia, so much due to legislative gaps as to the commonly held perceptions (tenacity of deeply entrenched prejudices and stereotypes about male and female social roles).

There are no legal barriers in Slovak legislation that would prevent women from entering the decision-making and holding governing posts. The right of the Slovak woman to freely choose and have a political career has never been challenged. At the same time, however, it is expected of the woman in Slovakia that she should not neglect the family and the home. Moreover, women themselves are very reluctant to give up their exceptional place in the family. A woman in political employment, therefore, has to cope with the responsibilities for the family and political career imperatives, which is easier said than done.

The most typical and universal obstacle hampering women’s entry into electoral politics in Slovakia is the family and responsibilities associated with it, which are traditionally viewed as a primarily female domain and “mission.” Political women themselves view them as such. Particularly dismissive reactions condemned the entry of mothers with young children into politics.

By Way of Conclusion

Women’s full participation in public life and decision-making has been acknowledged as complicated, on the one hand by women themselves and by the representative sample of males on the other. The resolution of this democratic deficit is typically left for a woman herself to arrive at (at best, in co-operation with the rest of the family). The question, “How could things be made easier for women?” ought to be asked not only by individual families but equally by political parties and society at large, because Slovakia has signed several international conventions covering this area, if not for any other reason.

Slovakia’s political parties are far from considering any supportive mechanisms, like adjusting timetables and plans of meetings, in order to integrate women in elective and non-elective positions in the same proportion and at the same levels as men.

Neither does any form of encouragement exist at the general level; no affirmative action measures have been taken so far, despite the fact that these are binding under the relevant ratified international instruments. Quotas to secure fair female representation in politics have not been adopted either. Such steps are typically frowned upon, even by women themselves.

This dismissive attitude to the quotas may be a consequence of the deeply-rooted gender-biased assumptions inherited from the former political regime, with its caricatured pursuit of gender equality and women’s artificial involvement in politics.

Slovakia’s political parties are far from considering any supportive mechanisms, like adjusting timetables in order to integrate women in the same proportion and at the same levels as men.

Iveta Radičová

is Dean of the Faculty of Mass Media at Pan-European University, Professor at Bratislava International School for Liberal Arts, and a special advisor to the EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality. She served as Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic (2010–2012), Deputy at Slovak National Parliament (2006 – 2009), and Minister for Labor and Social Affairs (2005–2006).

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Current issue - 04/2017

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).