Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

E. European Women Battle for a Better Workplace in Former Communist Countries, Widespread Discrimination and Harassment Limit Choices

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

E. European Women Battle for a Better Workplace in Former Communist Countries, Widespread Discrimination and Harassment Limit Choices

Article excerpt

When Maria Slavov, an attorney in Bulgaria, applied for a job a few years ago, she was told, "You're just going to marry and have children. If there's a man candidate, he'll get the position no matter how well qualified you are."

Klelija Balta, a former hydrogeology engineer in Bosnia-Herzegovina, wanted to become deputy director of her mining institute. One of her male colleagues discouraged her: "You are good, but we need a deputy director to be a strong man."

To get a job, women in most Eastern European countries have to answer ads that specify "attractive female receptionist" or "girl under 25." Women sometimes must promise not to get pregnant for five years - or, if they do, to leave "of their own volition." Once women are hired, they often have to work with photographs of naked women on office walls and do menial tasks for male colleagues. Says Ms. Slavov, "Even if you're highly educated, you still have to bring the coffee."

Blatant discrimination? Of course. But in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, such discrimination against women at work is not unusual. As Eastern European countries have privatized industries and established new market economies, labor demands have shifted and competition for jobs - and economic survival - has become fiercely aggressive. Women, it seems, have been the losers.

"When economic times get rough, life for women gets rougher," says Swanee Hunt, United States ambassador to Austria.

Recently, in Vienna, Ambassador Hunt organized a conference called "Vital Voices: Women in Democracy." For three days, 150 Eastern European women and 150 US and Western European women discussed common concerns, including earning a living in a male-dominated job market. The basic conclusion for Eastern European women: Now that they have political freedom, they are having to struggle just as hard for economic freedom and for job opportunities. Their work lives have drastically changed.

If they have work at all. Unemployment - and poverty - for women is rampant. In Ukraine, for example, 80 percent of the jobless are women. In Russia, 75 percent. Under communism, women worked mostly in manufacturing and agriculture or in government-funded offices and scientific-research institutes. Now those jobs, once guaranteed by the state, either no longer exist or have gone to men during downsizing and gender-based layoffs.

Available jobs are more likely to be in trade and tourism, or information, financial, and social services - all of which require new training that Eastern European women do not have and are less likely than men to get. As a result, men are hired, and women are shuffled aside. As Russian Labor Minister Gennady Melikyan put it a few years ago, "Why should we employ women when men are out of work?"

Struggle for authority

If women do find jobs, they face more discrimination. "You can work very hard, but you're not accepted by men," says Ms. Balta. When she complained about the poor performance of male colleagues, they got angry and refused to cooperate with her. "They could accept a man's criticism, but not a woman's," she says. "You have to be two or three times better than men are to succeed at work."

Women also have to endure sexual harassment, which a UN report describes as "virtually epidemic." According to Erika Csekes, a former member of the Slovakian parliament and now a publisher and attorney, "If the boss tries to develop a sexual relationship with a woman, she takes it as a normal thing. Women don't realize they should not be treated this way. It's accepted in our society."

It is also assumed that women will not try to compete with men for top jobs. Says Slavova, "Men push women aside before the competition ever starts." In Belarus, a new male employee with no work experience was introduced to the university-educated, experienced women in the office: "Some day he will be your boss," they were told. …

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