A halting revolution

November 18, 1994

The socialist regimes of central and eastern Europe assumed that statements of equality in their constitutions were all that was needed to ensure equality. Yet they did make some special provisions for mothers and children.

The need for women in the workforce led to comprehensive provision of nurseries and kindergartens. Even if women seldom reached the top in employment or politics, they had little fear of unemployment and they gained modest successes in the lower levels of political structures. The recent transitions to greater individual freedom, to more democratic politics, to opportunities to enjoy the benefits of the free market, would seem to have to build on existing foundations to ensure highly satisfactory conditions for women.

Yet it has hardly turned out like that. In higher education women are in much the same position as their peers in western Europe. Access to first-level studies is reasonably good: equality at undergraduate level was achieved rather earlier than in the United Kingdom: women entrants are indeed sometimes in a slight majority.

Similarly, gender bias in subject choice remains and is reflected in women's later careers: women predominate in education, social studies, health studies. Even if some percentages of women in engineering are higher than those found in most western countries -- by the end of the 1980s Bulgaria reached .8 per cent -- women still are a minority in such studies. At postgraduate levels, fewer women than men achieve doctoral or equivalent qualifications -- mainly, it is said, because of domestic commitments, or senior male academics' prejudices.

Women academics in central and eastern Europe are as familiar as those in the west with the pyramid structure which means that few of them reach the top positions in universities, research institutes or academies of sciences. Some countries have a larger percentage of women full professors than others -- Belarus State University claims per cent women professors -- while other relatively high scores are from 15 to 20 per cent. But women are seldom, if ever, found as directors and rectors: they are absent from the decision-making bodies.

Yet an odd result of recent and less recent developments could be the feminisation of teaching in higher education. Socialist regimes reduced differentials between university pay and average workers' pay: in present circumstances, pay and prestige in many universities are poor, even falling below the average worker's wage. Men are increasingly attracted to more remunerative employment in the private sector, in non-academic occupations.

So the usual results of the feminisation of a profession, lower pay and prestige, may appear in university teaching. Hungary had already been finding a related trend during the 1980s when boys opted for secondary vocational schools, with good employment prospects, while girls became the majority in general secondary schools leading only to higher education. Even if women are fully expert university teachers -- some student evaluations in Bulgaria have rated them as better than men -- this radical change in universities would, as women in the countries concerned point out, scarcely benefit society.

Privatisation of the economy has offered considerable opportunities but these have attracted men more than women who often lack business skills and contacts. Economic conditions vary from country to country but generally the private sector is male-dominated. The growth of unemployment in countries where state-controlled jobs were formerly secure seems especially to affect women adversely. Even if in some economies women are protected as a source of cheap labour, those with better education and qualifications may find new difficulties in obtaining and holding jobs: such retraining as is offered may be for lower-level occupations. Male employers in many instances regard the "privileges" established for women in socialist times (for example maternity leave, leave to care for sick children) as making them unsatisfactory employees. Jobs can still be advertised as for men only.

In academic work, the "privilege" offered in some systems, a retirement age five years lower than that of men, is valued little by women whose scholarly career has probably advanced more slowly than that of their male colleagues: it becomes enforced redundancy.

If anything, women suffer more than before from the problem of twofold responsibilities as paid workers outside the home, and unpaid workers within it. Their entry into socialist labour forces was not accompanied by equal sharing of domestic duties. Admittedly, where male unemployment increases, the view is expressed that women should help to solve this problem by staying at home. Renascent church teaching, notably in Poland, is indeed trying to re-establish the traditional emphasis on the wife and mother ideal: but meanwhile women want to, and have to, work also outside the home -- their families need the money. Reductions in publicly-provided kindergartens and the new pricing of private childcare mean that women's dual role is still more complicated. Already difficult because of the limited availability of labour-saving devices, domestic duties become more exacting still as higher food prices and increases in the time required for shopping take their toll.

In general, women graduates in central and eastern Europe have the impression that in such times of economic crisis, women's human rights become a matter of negligible importance. Just as their education systems tend to revert to their earlier traditions, re-establishing pre-socialist provisions and values, so these societies tend to return to the patriarchal attitudes common in Europe earlier this century. Women's representation in parliaments has generally become even less than it was in the immediate past.

Nevertheless, some gains have been made as women develop their own independent firms, become self-employed, discover freedom to engage in new organisations. Women university teachers may find their institutions now value them more highly when private institutions compete for their services. Above all, many women's groups have been formed, to work for better political representation, for the protection of the environment -- an issue particularly clearly appreciated in countries closely affected by Chernobyl -- and for fuller awareness of women's rights. But such awareness is not necessarily widespread among women themselves in these countries: their own survival strategies may preclude thinking about issues of equal opportunities.

Meanwhile, women with higher education are extending their contacts with their peers in other European countries. Associations of university women have been established, or re-established after a gap of some decades. Women's studies are being developed in various centres even if specific funding for them is hard to come by. Collaboration in research and communication about women's situation is sought eagerly. Thus the new democracies may eventually provide rather better for their women members and use their abilities more effectively and profitably, even after some detours through recession and depression.

Margaret Sutherland is emeritus professor of education at the University of Leeds.

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