By Clare Nuttall
Countries in Eastern Europe have high rates of female participation in the workforce, including in senior positions, but more needs to be done to ensure this continues as mass emigration of working age residents from Romania and other countries in the region threatens a further disastrous decline in the workforce.
Nearly three decades since the Berlin Wall came down, the communist history and the subsequent backlash against many aspects of socialism are still highly relevant in the former Eastern bloc countries. Even today, the role of women in the workplace is deeply entwined with these two, conflicting legacies. As socialism was rejected politically, many women were glad to leave behind the dual shifts of paid work and domestic work they had been forced to shoulder during this period, socialism not having penetrated the home sufficiently to ensure an equal division of housework and childcare. But at the same time, the view of women in the workplace (including in senior positions) being the norm has persisted.
This is confirmed by studies such as Grant Thornton’s annual Women in Business survey, which consistently shows that East European countries have some of the highest proportion of women leading businesses or in senior management positions in the world. The study doesn’t specifically mention Romania, but across the region 87% of companies surveyed had at least one woman in senior management, and the region has the highest proportion of companies led by women, 36%.
A separate study by MasterCard on women entrepreneurs found Romania was ninth globally in terms of the high proportion of female business owners, having made the biggest advance on the ranking to ninth place, with 28.9% of businesses surveyed owned by women. Romania’s tech industry is also revealed to be one of the most gender equal worldwide, with women accounting for 26% of the sector’s workforce; only Bulgaria and Canada had a higher proportion.
Romania is now in ninth place among 57 economies assessed by MasterCard in terms of the percentage of businesses owned by women. It was the top riser in the 2018 study.
The MasterCard Index of Women Entrepreneurs assesses the level of Women’s Advancement Outcomes, Knowledge Assets & Financial Access and Supporting Entrepreneurial Factors in 57 economies worldwide. For many countries this has a strong correlation with the percentage of women owned businesses — but Romania is relatively low on the index indicating that the country has a high proportion of women-owned businesses despite conditions in the country.
But the connection between a socialist background and a high number of women operating successfully in the business sphere is not a straightforward one.
Romania may have women in charge at some of the country’s largest and highest-profile companies — OMV Petrom where Mariana Gheorghe recently handed over the reins to Christina Verchere being a prime example — but the number of women serving on company boards has actually decreased, a recent European Commission report showed. While Romania and Bulgaria both have a high proportion of women in the tech industry, this is not mirrored in other countries from the region, and when looking at the gender pay gap in the tech sector, the picture even in Romania and Bulgaria doesn’t look so rosy for women after all. And while Eastern Europe as a whole continues to have large numbers of women at management level, the latest Women in Business report shows Africa overtook the region this year in terms of the number of companies with women on their management boards. The proportion of senior roles held by women in Eastern Europe also declined this year.
This comes at a time when so-called “illiberal democracy” has taken hold in several Central Europe countries, which has generally not been good news for women’s rights. Policies affecting women have ranged from eroding abortion rights, to opposing the ratification of a treaty on domestic violence, to questioning whether policy-making should be concerned with gender issues at all. However, economic expediency has ensured that so long as populations in the region are dwindling and labour shortages threaten to be a constraint on economic growth, even the most socially conservative governments rarely seek to challenge women’s right to be in the workplace.
But even if governments aren’t directly undermining women in the workplace, the lack of positive action to ensure women are able to work is putting past gains by women in the workplace at risk. Romania hasn’t gone down the illiberal democracy road to the extent that its northern neighbours Poland and Hungary have, but it still hasn’t taken much positive action to ensure, for example, that more women are represented on company boards. By contrast, efforts to encourage young people (both male and female) into the tech sector, has contributed to the large numbers of female graduates entering the industry.
Losing the historic advantage in the numbers of women in the workforce would be a pity. Not only because women are currently able to forge successful careers and become role models for younger generations, but also because of the bottom line impact. A study by McKinsey Global Institute, for example, finds that global GDP could be boosted by $12tn by advancing women’s equality. Businesses benefit from gender balance on their boards, as women are estimated to bring different management strengths such as longer-term strategic thinking, more diligent studying of information and the ability to change course when needed, that complement those of their male counterparts. Moreover, in a region where one of the major inhibitors of growth in the coming decades is set to be mass emigration and consequent labour shortages, encouraging women in the workplace is an economic imperative for Romania and other East European countries.
The top 10 countries in terms of the percentage of women in the tech industry, as ranked by tech recruitment company Honeypot. Romania is in third place after Bulgaria and Australia.
Projected population declines in Romania and other East European countries (measured in 1,000s) as forecast by the UN Population Agency. Declining workforces across the region are expected to become a severe constraint on growth within the next decade.
Grant Thornton’s annual Women in business report looks at the percentage of businesses with at least one woman in senior management and the proportion of senior roles held by women.
Clare Nuttall is a Bucharest-based journalist specialising in Eastern Europe. Currently news editor at bne IntelliNews, she has been with the magazine since 2008, initially in Kazakhstan and more recently in Romania. Clare has also written for the Financial Times and the Economist Intelligence Unit.