The problem of finding work in a country where unemployment averages 20% can be a mountain for any jobless person to climb. But for Slovakia's women, experts say, the task is made doubly difficult by a prevailing attitude of discrimination in Slovak society running from the highest levels of politics.
Sociologists and activists complain that while women have begun to take small steps along the road to equality and emancipation, the patriarchal model of society propagated under the former communist regime has deep roots, and that discrimination is covered up, preventing collection of accurate statistics to prove the existence of unfair play.
"Women don't trust themselves, they have doubts about their own abilities," says Magdaléna Piscová, a sociologist with the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV) in Bratislava. "Low self-confidence and traditional social and financial dependence on men makes life difficult for many women, especially the middle and older generation." This, they add, is often translated into a vicious circle of low self-esteem and low success when looking for work.
Available figures show that of the total number of people employed in Slovakia, 41% are women. However, that figure falls to 34% in the growing private sector. Research carried out by the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) NGO shows that 66% of men believe they should be given preference in hiring when there are labour shortages at a firm. Women are also paid a lower average hourly wage than men.
During the 1998 general elections, the ratio of women to men on candidates' lists for the political parties was 17% to 83%. Twenty women were elected to the 150 seat parliament in the elections, just 7.3% of all women who ran for office.
"There are no statistsics on discrimination, but just look at the number of women in top management or important positions in state administration or parliament. This is an indicator of discrimination," says Stanislava Luptaková of Bratislava's Comenius University management faculty.
Slovak firms deny that there is any gender discrimination in their workplace. Katarína Fečová, office manager at Reas real estate agency in Bratislava, says that her company employs equal numbers of men and women, and that workers are treated equally throughout the firm with men and women in similar positions being paid the same wage.
"It is well known that if a woman wants to reach the same job level as a man she has to work three times as hard to get this. But that is not the case in our company," Fečová says.
Jaroslav Mach, general director of the human resource sector at state-owned bank Slovenská sporiteľňa, Slovakia's largest financial institution, says that the situation at the bank was almost an example of what he jokingly described as "reverse discrimination".
"About 80% of our employees are women and they are, of course, a vital part of our, and Slovakia's, workforce."
Legislation in Slovakia on proving cases of sexual discrimination is also heavily weighted in favour of an employer. "At present, any woman who wishes to fight a discrimination case in court is obliged to gather the evidence and prove her own allegations, while in the West it is the employer who has the responsibility of fighting allegations made by an employee," says Luptáková. "And of course, discrimination is extremely difficult to prove anyway," she adds.
Analysts are agreed that sexual discrimination in business could have a huge impact on companies themselves.
"Companies may be losing something in discrimination. A balance between numbers of men and women in a workplace is needed, that is good for a healthy [working] environment. It can't be enforced, that in itself would be bad, but all personal decisions on jobs should be based on the professional skills of the person applying, not on gender," says Luptaková, adding that employers who may discriminate could be overlooking an important sector of the labour market.
"There are many ambitious, educated and hard-working women in Slovakia ready to work and contribute to the economy," she adds.
"At Reas we employ people according to their skills, not their gender," adds Fečová. "We are a small company, we need business, need to attract customers, and when we are looking for an employee we don't have time to think about whether they are a man or woman, just what they can do," she says.
Help at hand
Despite what appear to be bleak prospects for women wanting to work in Slovakia, one NGO has been trying to help women realise their business ambitions. Integra Slovakia, a Bratislava-based NGO, has been organising a programme, 'MikroFond', offering basic entrepreneurial training for women as well as small loans to successful graduates.
In the year since its inception, MikroFond has granted small loans of a maximum 100,000 Slovak crowns ($2,100) to 150 Slovak women.
"I always wanted to work at home, but I didn't know much about doing business," said 30 year-old trained chemical laboratory assistant Viera Moková from Záhorská Bystrica near Bratislava. Moková took part in the MikroFond programme this year, and this month started to pay back an 80,000 crown loan she obtained from Integra to start a small company making and supplying bees wax candles from home.
She is one of 300 women who have already participated in Integra's MikroFond programme.
For Anna Špačeková, MikroFond head, the programme is geared towards helping particular groups of women, such as young women unable to find work after returning from maternity leave [if a woman takes more than one year of maternity leave, under Slovak law, her employer can give her job away - ed. Note], or older women who generally have difficulties finding a job as a rule. She added, however, that while these women often had different social backgrounds, they shared a common goal.
"From young Roma women with basic education to pharmacists with PhDs, these women have one thing in common. For whatever reason, they don't have a job and want to start doing something on their own," said Špačeková.
SAV's Piscová is pleased with the scheme. "For women, not only in Slovakia, the chance to work at home or in their own small firm is a very useful thing. Not only do they become more independent financially, but they can rediscover their lost self-esteem."
For Špačeková there are many more reasons to forge on with the programme. "Micro loans are very popular around the world. Women are very reliable in paying back the loans. Our return rate is 100%. And I guarantee that for men, the 100,000 crowns that we can offer would not be enough," she smiles. In addition to that, she says, by educating women to run small businesses, they often create employment possibilities for other people.
"Women are much more responsible," agrees Piscová. "They take their commitments more seriously than men. Also, once they have a job, or have created one or two for somebody else, they are very loyal and can work hard to maintain it."
"I have made my small dream come true," Moková says. "Me and my husband are working together, and we hope we can expand sometime. We hope our son will learn the trade too."
Anyone interested in helping MikroFond Integra can contact Mrs. Špačeková at 07-5244 4246.