Not yet a Revolution

Many still tend to think that it is unusual for a woman to be the leader of a country. In Central Europe, we find it a surprise that female politicians can win elections; the perceived hurdle – reflected in the omnipresent trials of day-to-day life – seems to be insurmountable until it is achieved. 

We hear comments in the street and read them online, we write opinion pieces and seek arguments to prove the choices were right and the mustache-dominated governments should be more gender-balanced. We know that women comprise over 50 percent of the population, and these statistics should be mirrored by the same ratio of women in high positions in politics and business, but this is not the case.

We have seen in Central Europe a number of highly skilled and competent women gaining power in the last few years – starting with Zuzana Čaputová (Slovakia’s President), Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović (Croatia’s former President), Angela Merkel (the German Chancellor), Kersti Kaljulaid (Estonia’s President), Ana Brnabić (Serbia’s Prime Minister), and ending with the newly-elected president of Moldova, Maia Sandu.

While male political and business leaders need to contend with criticism over their job performance, their female equivalents need to endure the same level of scrutiny over their actions but with the added hardship of proving their worth every day; it is not considered obvious or a given like it is for the male heads of state or business.

They are constantly doubted with questions like did the people make the right choice, can these women lead us well, are they talented enough to run the political spheres of their countries?

Central Europe is Full of Talented Women

According to the Pew Research Centre, most women – over 70% – point to having to do more to prove themselves as a major reason why their gender is underrepresented in higher political offices. And about six-in-ten women (59%) view gender discrimination as a major obstacle for them in politics. These patterns are repeated when the public is asked why there are not more women in top executive positions in business.

In an ideal world, we would not seek out opportunities to make these leaders appear worse just for the sake of it or to undermine their self-confidence in such a way.

And about six-in-ten women (59%) view gender discrimination as a major obstacle for them in politics. These patterns are repeated when the public is asked why there are not more women in top executive positions in business.

Central Europe is full of talented women that already hold important positions in business, banking and the innovation sector although we still do not let them hold the highest positions, and – all too often – they are regulated to the backseat. Yes, we may admire their talents, take advantage of their knowledge, experience and intuition, but we don’t see this is ‘the right time’ for their leadership, not yet.

But why? Why is there this ongoing discussion over whether or not a woman can lead in countries that already have female leadership? Why – with so many aforementioned role-models – do people still doubt their abilities and harbour these ‘concerns’ when they head to the polling stations? How is it possible that we cannot follow the example of Nordic countries where even all-female governments are in place, and feminist foreign policy is not falsely and pejoratively associated with bra-burning but incorporated into the upper echelons of international governance?

Strong Gains in the Balkans

Recently, we have once again encountered this conversation in Poland where one of the candidates in the 2020 presidential election was female. There was doubt-ridden commentary throughout the media about whether she could win, not because of her skills or policy positions but because she was a woman. In a ‘traditional’ society like Poland, it is not typical and thus avoided.

While 2020 marks the twentieth anniversary of the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and although many Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries (including Poland and Ukraine) just celebrated the 100th anniversary of women obtaining the right to vote, the average number of female members in parliamentary assemblies in Europe stands at 30%. This average is much lower than the proportion of women in the European Parliament (40.3%), but roughly equivalent to that of women elected at the local level (29%). [source: The Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR)].

Many Central and Eastern European countries just celebrated the 100th anniversary of women obtaining the right to vote, the average number of female members in parliamentary assemblies in Europe stands at 30%.

Luckily, compared to 10 years ago, the data on women in the national parliaments has shown some forward momentum in several countries in CEE and in the Balkans. The Balkan countries are mentioned here because they have made better gains than their CE neighbours. The numbers in the Balkans are still far from achieving equality in terms of women in political positions (we must remember they started from much lower levels), but nevertheless over the last decade, the Balkans have seen the strongest gains in women elected in local and general elections. It can be argued that the credit for these figures goes to the imposed quotas, but the growth is over 20 per cent.

Parity between women and men (not only in the parliaments) does not exist anywhere in Europe, even in countries like France, Spain or Sweden where women are present in numbers almost equal to – or sometimes even greater than – men. Parity is not yet a reality and Central Europe still has a great deal of work to do. Perhaps the change will come with the strong women that are role models today. I strongly believe that we should raise the profile around them, cherish their achievements, praise them (not await their mistakes), and therefore build up a mutual understanding in Central European nations that positioning women in high levels of government is not meritless. I am hopeful that the example of Maia Sandu and Zuzana Čaputová, and many other CEE female leaders at national and international institutions, will be an example to be followed, and with time we (women) will find it easier to hold positions without unnecessary doubt as to whether we are able to handle the responsibilities therein.

Magda Jakubowska

Magda Jakubowska has served in the role of vice president at Res Publica Foundation since 2017, where she manages and supports key ventures, including institutional cooperation and partnerships, strategic development and program management. With her ideas in opinion pieces on insufficient involvement by women in security matters, Magda has generated a strong international interest regarding female empowerment in security and has laid the foundations for the NATO campaign: #WomenAreNATO.

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Current issue - 01/2021

Will Women Change (Eastern) Europe?

Central and Eastern Europe are facing a global pandemic, an attack by state institutions on an independent judiciary and the media, or a post-Soviet dictatorship right in the European Union's neighborhood. This volume offers women's perspective on these life-changing events and highlights what we should not overlook.