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East: Economic Reform Results In High Jobless Rates For Women

  • Alexandra Poolos

With the economic tumult that free-market reforms have brought to former communist countries, many women in the region have been forced from their jobs. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos looks into the problem

Prague, 10 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Since the fall of communism in 1989, unemployment rates for women across eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have skyrocketed.

According to a recent report by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the women who have lost most jobs are in the countries that are furthest along the path of economic reform. In Hungary, a country of some 10 million people, women have lost close to one million jobs since 1989 --that's one-third of all the jobs they held under the old regime. The situation is similar in Ukraine and Russia, but in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, cautious reforms have protected state-supplied jobs for many women.

Under communism, women's participation in the work force was outstandingly high by international standards. In the Baltic republics, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, the gender gap in labor force participation rates was as low as that in Sweden -- the leader in job gender equality among Western nations. Across the communist region, women in the work-place had access to an extensive state-run system of family and child-care supports. That included lengthy paid maternity leave, family allowances attached to wages, and nursery, kindergarten and after-school services for children. Levels of educational achievement among women were high and standards of health care were relatively good.

Andy Newell, an economist at the University of Sussex in Britain, says that the large number of women working in the eastern bloc was part of a larger plan to increase the work force in communist countries:

"The history of women in the communist period, especially in Russia but it's true in eastern Europe as well -- that the system was designed to ensure economic growth in the communist framework. And the way that they did that was extensive growth and that meant that they wanted to get as many people working as possible. Female participation rose very rapidly during the 30s, 40s and 50s. And that was deliberately designed."

But despite these successes, gender discrimination still existed and it was never properly addressed by the communist authorities. Although women were encouraged to work, they often carried a double duty of home and work responsibilities. Data from the UNICEF report shows that the total workload of women in eastern Europe averaged close to 70 hours per week.

As communism collapsed and countries moved into economic turbulence. traditional stereotypes begin to resurface. The transition from communism immediately showed that there had been a real gender difference in employment. Not only were women the first to lose their jobs, when state companies began to be collapse they also encountered limited avenues for future employment. State subsidies for childcare and maternity leave disappeared almost immediately, making it difficult for women to leave the home.

Newell says that women are often crowded into professions traditionally open to them and shut out from industries where salaries are higher.

"Employment practices are still very sexist. There's a great deal of occupational segregation in these countries still. So women will be crowded into feminized industries -- health care, education, primary education especially -- and they won't be at all in other industries."

Like many other countries elsewhere, women earn less on average than men in former communist countries. According to a recent World Bank study, university-educated men in Poland on average earn about 40 percent more per month than educated women. In Latvia, women employed full-time bring home up to 32 percent less than men. In Croatia, women make up more than two-thirds of office workers and more than half of all low-skilled labor. The report says that the gender difference in pay is directly tied to a decrease in educational opportunities for women, which has resulted in women being clustered in low-paying jobs.

The picture is far brighter when it comes to women involved in the rising number of small business. UNICEF recently examined the number of women among entrepreneurs across the region. Its data shows that about one-quarter of all entrepreneurs are women. The numbers are consistent with those found in many developed market economies.

Newell says that women entrepreneurs are stepping forward to fill a huge service sector gap:

"There's this terrific shortage in everyday services -- things that we in the West would treat as completely normal. From hairdressing to mail services, all those personal services and financial services as well. There just wasn't very much of that. And entrepreneurs were hardly encouraged in the system. And so there was a terrible shortage of that kind of activity. And those are activities that are predominately done by women, made by women, even in the West. And so as they've grown, as they start from small enterprises, that's where you would expect to find the women."

Newell also says that before women's role in the workplace can improve, former communist countries must first build a stable economy. He says that women will survive the tumult of transition years. One major reason he cites is that, for him, they cope better with adversity. That means, Newell adds, that women are less shocked by the transition to a free market and have tried harder to find out what it is they can do.