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Central and Eastern Europe: Report Says Gender Gap Worsening

  • Don Hill

The Open Society Institute and the Bucharest-based Center for Partnership and Equality have just published a joint study of disparities in pay and political representation between men and women in Eastern and Central Europe. It says that women in some of the countries studied are paid two-thirds of what their male counterparts make. In all of the countries examined, the report says, women hold only a small number of political-leadership positions. They make up, of course, slightly more than 50 percent of the population. The report's authors are calling on the countries to take steps to provide equal opportunities for women in politics and in the labor force. RFE/RL talks to the study's authors in Romania and Turkey about the stubborn problems behind their findings.

Prague, 5 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Authors of the gender-equality study find that it's a lot easier to get laws passed promising equal opportunity for women than it is to get a woman a pay raise or a cabinet appointment.

The researchers studied the records over the past two years of new European Union members Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia along with aspiring EU members Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey.

The study says that all of the countries have adopted legislation approaching the bloc's standards for guaranteeing equal opportunity for women. But, it says, the disparities affecting women in employment opportunities, wages, and political representation remain widespread and are increasing throughout the region.

"We [are] monitoring to what extent the promises made by the national governments of the new member states are to be taken into the real lives of the citizens," says one of the principal authors, Roxana Tesiu, executive president of the Center for Partnership and Equality."It's indeed among the general findings of the report that, unfortunately, the laws -- namely the legal framework related to gender equality -- are in place, but on the other hand it is quite clear that the laws function on paper but unfortunately there is quite [a lot of] time remaining in order to transpose these laws into the daily lives of the citizens."

In others words, the law says women must be treated equally in the workplace, but the workplace continues to function as it has always done.
Nobody really knows how severe the wage gaps and other handicaps that burden women actually are because job definitions are elastic, pay records in many industries are murky, and workplace standards are mired in culture and custom.

The fact is, Tesiu and her colleagues concede, that nobody really knows how severe the wage gaps and other handicaps that burden women actually are. That's because job definitions are elastic, pay records in many industries are murky, and workplace standards are mired in culture and custom.

RFE/RL asks Tesiu how, if data is so clouded, the researchers can be so certain that conditions are as uneven as the report describes: "I think the absence of information and statistics in this regard is also an answer in itself. On the other hand, there are various pieces of this image that started to be put together. But of course the big puzzle is not finalized yet. Information from various sectors within the national industries shows very clearly that there is a huge gender pay gap."

The researchers say that both inertia and lack of political will contribute to the failure of the governments studied -- and in most of the older EU governments as well -- to bring their practical behavior in line with their theoretical regulations and policies. But the most unyielding problems of all, the report says, are imbedded in centuries-old work cultures.

Nevin Senol, an independent expert in Turkey on gender inequality, says Turkey fits snugly the description of the study group of nations as a whole.

"The first thing I should say is that there are so many legislative changes in Turkey, which is good, but implementation of those legislations is much more important at this moment," Senol says.

Senol says the inequality problems start earlier and lie deeper than can be blamed on current employers, governments, policy makers, and lawgivers.

"And there are, of course, so many problems to be solved regarding high illiteracy rates among women, regarding women's low rate of participation in the labor market, and women's low participation in politics," she says.

The report's major recommendations include a call for governments to establish regular monitoring of how equal pay principles are practiced in both the public and private sectors and making these monitoring results public. It urges the governments in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Poland to collect and publish official gender statistical data.

Tesiu says it is very hard to correct a wrong that lurks unseen beneath the surface even if you know it is there.

"Nobody basically is taking seriously [enough] gender equality [issues]," Tesiu says. "It is like...a Loch Ness monster. Everybody...knows about the Lock Ness monster, but nobody saw it actually."

Senol says that the drive for women's equality itself needs help.

"One thing that I should say is that we need more contribution from the European Commission and the European Parliament in terms of funds, in terms of encouraging our government to take further steps," Senol says.

Zita Gurmai is a Hungarian member of the European Parliament and deputy chairwoman of its Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality, the committee to which the report was submitted. She says that recognizing the problem and adopting laws to resolve it have gone a small part of the way. She says that the hard work of actually achieving gender equality lies ahead.