CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE

A tricky Gambit

Although the former communist countries have the highest female employment rates in the scientific professions, the experts who produced the ENWISE report reveal that women rarely occupy prestigious positions. Since 2004, there have been several attempts to reposition the gender issue at the heart of research policy.

©Shutterstock
©Shutterstock

It is the Eastern European paradox. In all the countries that have joined the European Union since 2004, the proportion of women working in the scientific professions is above the 29 % European average (apart from the Czech Republic, with 28 %). At the same time, with the exception of Romania, they are also the countries with the highest ‘glass ceiling index’ (which measures the gap between the progress of men and women in science careers). To try to explain this paradox, the ENWISE (ENlarge Women In Science in the East) working group, set up by the European Commission in 2003 in the run-up to these countries joining the EU, suggested under taking a study of the long history of Central Europe, the Baltic States and the Balkans. One of the outcomes was a report entitled Waste of talents: turning private struggles into a public issue.

Shared heritage

What all these countries have in common is a long history of domination by a traditionalist empire, whether Austro-Hungarian, Russian or Ottoman. When they gained their independence, many in the aftermath of the World War I, all these countries undertook ambitious modernisation programmes that featured women prominently. Almost everywhere women were given the right to vote (30 years ahead of Belgium, France or Italy) and represented a quarter of students at university, where coeducation was the rule rather than an exception as it was elsewhere in the world. Not everything in the garden was rosy though: apart from a small bourgeois élite, women scarcely ever worked in laboratories, and the nationalist debate tended to compartmentalise them in their traditional role as homemakers.

The initial impetus was further boosted by the arrival of the communist regimes after World War II. Gender equality became a political objective of the first plan, backed by voluntarist measures such as incentives for young women to study at university, the promotion of women to positions of responsibility and a raft of collective provisions for childcare. Although the results were impressive, there was also a devastating secondary effect. According to the ENWISE experts, headed by Estonian female astrophysicist and politician Ene Ergma, the political commitment to gender equality has blinded societies to the gender issue. “Despite the obvious glass ceiling, neither women nor social science researchers recognised or criticised it, largely owing to a prewar ban on feminist movements, which were seen as bourgeois.”

Paradox of transition

How did this complex historical heritage work against women in science once the communist regimes had disappeared? According to the ENWISE experts, women did not leave the world of work during the transition years, if only because the two-wage household was an economic imperative. However, the collapse of funding for science and technology, sectors previously pampered by the communists, resulted in many men leaving laboratories in their homeland to work abroad, especially in the much more lucrative sectors of finance and trade. The women remained behind, heightening the feminisation of the scientific world but not people’s awareness of inequality. According to the ENWISE report (and this holds true for the European Union as a whole), the more a country or business sector invests in research, the less feminised it becomes.

We have to look at the history of the 20th century to unravel this Eastern European paradox. Although these countries have more researchers, they also have greater inequalities between male and female scientists. This story took a new turn with accession to the EU, which makes gender equality one of the corner stones of its science policy. “Since 2004, partly owing to the efforts of various European Unionfinanced projects, the issue of women in science has become acceptable to political decisionmakers. Both the governmental agencies responsible for science policy and the Equal Opportunities Minister are currently funding initiatives in this area,” enthuses Dora Groo, President of the Hungarian Women Scientists’ Association created in late 2008.

A time of initiatives…

Many EU-backed initiatives have been implemented to ensure that the issue is addressed at national level. The Central European Centre for Women and Youth in Science (CEC-WYS), whose objective is to empower women and young scientists in Central Europe and to help achieve gender equality in R&D, combines Czech, Slovak, Slovenian and Hungarian research teams. Since 2005, it has been holding training sessions on how to integrate the gender dimension into European scientific projects. It is also attempting to make gender equality in science an issue of public debate. “In the past, politicians, researchers and journalists considered it to be a totally marginal issue,” explains Czech sociologist, Marcela Linkova, a former head of CEC-WYS. “And when the subject was first broached, it was to only investigate how women could best balance their work and family life. The planned measures were designed to force women into the mould of a masculine career structure, instead of seeking to rethink the structure itself to enable people to pursue a career without sacrificing their personal lives.”

No doubt we are seeing the fruits of these patient awareness-raising efforts by the CEC-WYS in an article published in a leading Slovak daily newspaper in June 2007 bemoaning the very low proportion of women in the country’s universities. “This is a problem because, like politics, it is an important strand of public life where women are sadly lacking,” decries the reporter. Or the Prague edition of a book entitled Queen’s Gambit (1) (named after a celebrated chess opening that allows the queen to dominate the centre of the chessboard), which describes how many young women have successfully embarked on a science career in recent years. Or a Hungarian television documentary on the same theme.

…and reversals

One of the key aims is to ensure that the younger generation is presented with positive images of women scientists to counter persistent sexist stereotypes and low feminist awareness. Despite the efforts of researchers’ associations, the question of gender in science is still often considered as secondary, or even perceived as a passing fad of Brussels bureaucrats. “As the educated public sees gender equality as a throwback to the communist era, unconnected with national culture and history, it tends to discredit the issue. Nevertheless, the Bulgarian Association of University Women was formed way back in 1924,” remarks science philosopher, Nikolina Sretenova.

A survey by the Baltic States Network: Women in Science and High Technology reveals that female Estonian researchers still tend to blame themselves if their careers are less brilliant than those of their male counterparts, failing to reco gnise that their careers are determined not by personal choices or lesser merit, but by the way in which the system itself functions. The generation that lived through the communist era, with its stated ideal of equality, is starting to make way for a new generation with different aspirations, which, says the ENWISE report, is beguiled by the siren song calling for women to return to their traditional role.

According to experts in the Women in Science Debate project that followed on from CECWYS, the siren song could become ever louder as scientific research regains prestige in these countries, which are also starting to embrace the knowledge economy. The countries at Europe’s outer reaches have already witnessed the waxing and waning of a number of such movements and, indeed, this variable mix of progressive and conservative ideas is an integral part of the local political culture. Such are the tides of history.


Mikhaïl Stein

  1. (1) Barbora Tupá (ed.), Queen’s Gambit. The Launch of a Research Career, Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Science of the Czech Republic, Prague 2007.

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