E. European Women Battle for a Better Workplace

In former communist countries, widespread discrimination and harassment limit choices

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.

Women also know that they will be paid less than men for similar work. In Russia, women's wages were 70 percent of men's in 1989; two years ago they'd slipped to only 40 percent. Women often have to retire earlier than men - and be locked into low-fixed incomes. In the Czech Republic, labor laws were passed that required women to quit work starting at 57, up to five years sooner than men.

Perhaps most difficult for working women has been losing liberal maternity leave and free child care, kindergartens, and health care, formerly provided by the state. Now, like many US women, Eastern European women "are stumbling on their way to the marketplace overburdened with household responsibilities," explains Hunt. Without support from spouses, women are expected to earn money and keep their homes running smoothly. Says Sava Dimtrova, the director of a chocolate company in Macedonia, "The kitchen is only for the women, not for the man" - whether she works full time or not.

A business of their own

Even with so many social and economic obstacles, Eastern European women have scrambled around and found ways to earn a living. One of those ways has been to start businesses, free from the discrimination of men, yet still fraught with problems, such as getting credit, the biggest challenge, or surviving alongside the black-market "shadow" economy, in which women rarely take part.

To become entrepreneurs, some women produce handicrafts at home or sell fruit and flowers on city streets. Others with more capital fly to nearby countries, buy goods not available in their own, and return to sell them in markets. Still others actually open offices, as did Lenka Pavilkova. When her language-services business mushroomed to seven full-time employees and 200 freelance interpreters, Ms. Pavilkova borrowed $1,200 from her mother to buy equipment, then set up shop with computers, faxes, and phones. Her business now does translating for more than 90 companies.

Women have also become entrepreneurs with the help of business incubators, which are large facilities that provide low-rent modules to new businesses.

As the businesses grow, they can acquire more space. Computers, fax and copying machines, and other equipment are available to the entrepreneurs, as are business courses and advice.

One successful incubator, founded in Russia's Volkhov region with financing from the US Agency for International Development, is currently housing a bakery, print shop, photo-processing lab, and knitwear and mushroom-growing companies, among others. "60 percent of the Volkhov incubator's businesses are run by women," explains one of its advisers, Grace Kennan Warnecke, an American with a business-consulting firm in Russia.

Banding together

Since most women's new businesses cannot be nurtured in incubators - and since women face so much discrimination and have so few connections to get ahead - East European women seem intensely aware of the importance of banding together and helping each other earn a living.

Vesna Pesic, president of the Civic Alliance in Serbia, sums up the attitude: "We must work for ourselves without waiting for others to fight for us."

In Moldova, the 27 chapters of the Women's Association, a national organization, are giving financial assistance and technological support to new women entrepreneurs. And in all the East European countries, women are trying to enter the political process in order to change the rules that discriminate against them in the workplace and elsewhere.

Czech Republic women, who make up 15 percent of parliament, have been the most successful. But in Lithuania, where women are only 7 percent of parliament, a strong Women's Party is emerging. "We want to express the interest of women and children and give practical assistance to them," says Kazimiera Prunskiene, former Lithuanian prime minister.

Some determined women are working alone outside politics to promote women's interests and help them advance. One is Balta, who, after the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, left her job as a hydrogeology engineer and began working with a company that publishes a women's business magazine.

"I went to work in the business because I believed that there is no democracy with empty stomachs," Balta says. "After the war, men were building our society according to their wishes; I wanted to take into account women's values."

She has been encouraging Bosnian women to network and establish themselves in the new society. "I want women to become aware of their possibilities to lead in business and economics, not just to follow."

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