Although the Slovak Constitution promises equal opportunity for every person regardless of sex, race, religion or political affiliation, Slovak women and analysts say that the country's female citizenry face discrimination in the workplace. Disparities still persist in terms of the wages men and women in equal positions earn, while men are far more likely to be awarded top managerial positions over their female counterparts.
While female executives remain an anomaly in the traditionally male-dominated domain of decision making in Slovakia, a new generation of professional and political women is trying to break the sexist barrier of the male 'grey suits' and bring about an increase in female representation in influential positions.
Creating change will be no small task for these maverick women. The general population still looks primarily to men for leadership, men are often unable to cope with a woman in a position of power, and women themselves often lack the confidence to pursue such posts.
"Slovak society is very careful about accepting the idea of women in high managerial posts or in influential political positions," said Magdaléna Piscová, a sociologist at the Slovak Academy of Science's Sociological Institute. "Women themselves are still not confident enough to run for such posts."
Even professional women holding high posts in international firms say that it is sometimes odd to think of women in leading roles. Blanka Schellingová, Senior Consultant at the HR firm Jenewein International, said that although she believes women are as capable as men, the thought of seeing a strong woman leading a firm remains unusual.
"I was thinking the other day about what would have happened had a woman been leading VSŽ [the troubled eastern Slovak steel maker]," she said, "I was wondering who my candidate would be. Although I know many successful and very qualified women, the idea seemed unusual to me. In Slovakia, this is not the tradition."
Barriers restricting more females from scaling the corporate ladder can be attributed to both men and women. The belief in the traditional Slovak gender roles - that men should be the bread-winner while women should tend to the family - is still supported by a majority of both sexes. As a result, a woman with a promising beginning to an ambitious career is more inclined to give it all up for her husband and children.
"Generally, women are more tied to their families and feel more responsible for the raising of the children," Piscová said. "So in considering a career, women tend to think more 'down to earth' and are more willing to give up their jobs for the well-being of their family."
"Slovak society is still very patriarchal and men are assumed to be responsible for the financial well-being and for 'bringing the means' to the family," Piscová added, noting that even if the woman wanted to be the financial support of the family, the husband would likely protest. "For psychologically and socially weaker men it might cause a problem to have a wife who earns more money than he does," she said.
Schellingová, meanwhile, said that she had seen signs of change. When conducting searches for top managerial positions, she said that firms normally look for the most qualified person to fill the post, regardless of gender. She added, however, that women rarely were awarded such posts because few ever actually applied for high managerial posts.
"We organise tenders for our international clients who often are looking for top managers and do not care about the difference between sexes," she said. "But it is very rare for a woman to even apply for such a job."
Schellingová offered one explanation for the lack of female applicants for such posts, saying that they were put off by the competition with men. "To 'win the race', women must fight a hundred times harder [than their male competitors]," she said.
The 'female aspect'
With men dominating the corporate and political scenes, the 'female aspect' is often on short supply. Irena Belohorská, chairwoman of the Women's Union and a deputy for the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), said that this lack of female involvement hindered the ultimate productivity and efficiency of any project.
"I believe that the female aspect is an important one and I would even say that women's solutions are more pragmatic and more sensitive to the realities of life than are men's," she said. "This is perhaps caused by the fact that women are still largely responsible for everyday tasks of life even if they have demanding and highly qualified professions."
Belohorská added that in politics, though, the 'female aspect' was sometimes subjected to criticism. Men sometimes used a woman's femininity against her when they found themselves unable to counter an argument by accusing female colleagues of being too emotional to offer logical proposals, she said.
Furthermore, female participation in the government has declined since the fall of communism in 1989. According to Peter Guráň, the Family Ministry's Family Policy Section head, communism had set a quota dictating that 30% of the parliament be female. Since 1989, Piscová said that the percentage had fluctuated between 12% and 17%.
Instead, women are being pigeon-holed into stereotypical professions. "Areas such as the textile industry, food processing, education and even the health care sector are dominated by women," she said. "These are also the lowest paying and least prestigious jobs."
Margita Barošová, a research fellow at the Family Ministry's Research Institute, also noted that the education and health care sectors were dominated by women. Over 80% of such jobs are held by women, usually at lower salaries than their male colleagues. "Even if equally educated, Slovak women get paid less than Slovak men as a rule," she said.
Both Piscová and Guráň believe that discriminatory trends in the workforce were changing, albeit slowly. Especially among the younger generation, they said, more notable results in attaining equality would soon be achieved. "Slovak women are generally highly educated and it would be a shame if they were not allowed to use their knowledge," said Piscová. "It would be a waste of potential for them as well as Slovak society."
17. Apr 2000 at 0:00 | Martina Pisárová