Women gaining power, influence slowly

They make up more than half of the population. They vote, they work, they care for the country's children. But in Slovakia, women tend to get less attention than general social ills. In fact, a call to the Statistical Office of the Slovak Republic reveals that employment data are not recorded by gender. So, while politicians and sociologists know how many people are unemployed, or registered as entrepreneurs, there is no indication of how many of those out of work - or those running their own business - are women. And it is impossible to judge just how many women have actually made it to the top of Slovak business, politics, culture, or other fields.
Not so surprising, actually. According to a poll released just last month by the Focus agency, a significant number of Slovaks of both sexes have never heard of "feminism."

They make up more than half of the population. They vote, they work, they care for the country's children. But in Slovakia, women tend to get less attention than general social ills. In fact, a call to the Statistical Office of the Slovak Republic reveals that employment data are not recorded by gender. So, while politicians and sociologists know how many people are unemployed, or registered as entrepreneurs, there is no indication of how many of those out of work - or those running their own business - are women. And it is impossible to judge just how many women have actually made it to the top of Slovak business, politics, culture, or other fields.

Not so surprising, actually. According to a poll released just last month by the Focus agency, a significant number of Slovaks of both sexes have never heard of "feminism." Of those who have, most stressed the negative qualities they associate with feminism, rather than evaluating its goals.

Curiously enough, one of the prime goals of western-style feminism - to get women accepted in the workplace - was deftly handled by the old regime. It is now accepted that everybody, male and female, should work. Socialism made it easy for women to do so, providing them with equal access to education, cheap child care, and plenty of maternity leave.

What hasn't come so far, however, are thoughts on just what kind of work women should do and what sort of salary they should receive. Slovak labor law prohibits women (ostensibly for their own protection) from taking certain manual jobs. Women with the same qualifications as men make less money and only rarely reach top positions. There are many reasons for this, not least the sense that women will eventually leave work to have children.

Discrimination in the workplace, "is accepted as something normal," explained Zora Butorová, the director of Focus. "There is strong support for discriminatory approaches. People say that a man should be chosen for jobs and promoted and paid a higher salary because they must provide for their family." Ironically, she pointed out, most families in Slovakia depend on two incomes. But many people still believe that women's priority should be children and the home.

"Women often have problems entering good jobs because of having a family, and it is generally understood that they should keep lower positions," said Brigita Schmögnerová, a member of parliament for the Party of the Democratic Left. In fact, it may be getting even harder, Schmögnerová pointed out, because of the loss of the social support system.

"The standard of living is declining," she said, "and women have to do everything themselves, which takes a lot of energy from them."

Each field has its own barriers for women. For example, take the world of finance: out of 7,059 Slovak students enrolled in economics faculties in 1993, 4,009 of them were women. But, considering the average age of Slovak brides is 21, it is likely that many of them started their families before completing their studies.

Or politics: while the number of women who choose to vote here remain surprisingly high - 77 percent of Slovak women voted in the last election while just 74 percent of men participated, according to a survey conducted in 11 eastern European countries by the Open Media Research Institute - far fewer women choose to participate directly. Women across eastern Europe in general, OMRI found, associate party membership and public participation with activities that were mandatory in the past. Thus, after the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia, the proportion of women in government dropped from 30 to 9 percent.

Although the number of women with power and influence remains relatively low, changing times are changing attitudes and women's issues are getting more attention. "I thought this was not so important because I thought there were equal problems for men and women that must be addressed first, and that was the prevailing attitude. " Butorová said, describing her feelings after Communism's collapse 1989. "But now I don't think that anymore."

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