Throughout Polish history, women have long lived alongside the image of the “Matka Polka” (“Mother Pole”), as immortalised in literature and popular culture, who was always putting the family and the country before her own needs. With the men away at war or killed during an uprising, the Matka Polka would take care of the home and her children whilst at the same time organising underground meetings for the resistance or taking up arms herself, all the while upholding the spirits of the doomed nation. It was a heavy burden to bear, and while today’s women in Poland may not be fighting with the resistance, they continue to largely take care of the home while striving to make gains in the workplace.
One legacy of the communist era, in Poland as well as throughout the former Soviet Bloc, is the idea of women taking equal part in the workforce, as depicted on propaganda posters portraying tractor-driving mothers and scythe-wielding daughters. And in fact, women’s employment did increase steadily following the Second World War, from 33.1 percent in 1960 to 46 percent at the fall of the Iron Curtain. Nonetheless, unemployment levels for women remained higher than for men throughout the communist era, and the transition to a democratic government and a free market economy in the early 1990s was largely detrimental to the cause of equal employment. Women’s issues such as equal pay, workplace gender discrimination, government-subsidised childcare and reproductive rights were put on the back-burner during the political struggles of the first post-communist decade.
Poland’s entrance into the European Union in 2004 led to the adoption of EU policies related to the promotion of gender equality. Within EU legislation are directives that stipulate equal pay for equal work and prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender. Nonetheless, recent statistics show that these directives have mainly been implemented only on paper in Poland.
According to the most recent report on the situation of women in the workforce by the Central Statistical Office (GUS), in 2007, 42.3 percent of women 15 or older were employed, versus 57.4 percent of men. Overall, women represent 43.1 percent of the population working full time. In 2007, the average wage for women was 21.7 percent lower than that of men. The wage discrepancies are the most significant at the highest earning bracket, where women earn just 67 percent of what men in the same positions earn. This revelation is perhaps easier to understand when put in the context of Polish business culture.
Women in business
When investigating the particular problems of Polish women in the business world, the Krakow Post spoke to Judyta Kwaśniewska, president of Galaktyka Kobiet and organiser of the “Ladies’ Mixers” series of meetings (see interview, opposite). Ms. Kwaśniewska, who holds an MBA from a Polish-Dutch institution, gained over a decade of experience in business, both in Poland and abroad, before starting her own company in Krakow.
“Business is a new thing in Poland, after all, as we have only had a free economy for the past 21 years. But I think women are worse off at the moment,” Ms. Kwaśniewska told the Post.
Ms. Kwaśniewska emphasised that according to Polish law, men and women are equal. However, deep-set cultural expectations have a great influence on the position of women in the workplace. “If you look at university enrolment, it’s nearly 50-50 – in fact, today more women go to universities than men in Poland. But then, if you look at managerial positions, they’re gone. Not only are there more women that finish their studies now, but they also have better results. So women are perfectly equipped to be successful in business or anywhere else, and then all of a sudden we have this drop off. So what happens with these educated, potential talents?
“They’re gone from the system because they’re at home with their children,” she continues. “There is no equality in the way the culture sees our role in the family, and therefore there is one competence that makes a difference between men and women: we have a different time availability for our work, because the culture expects us to take care of the household.”
Ms. Kwaśniewska spoke of the prevalence of traditional gender roles in modern Polish society: “People think that a one- or two-year-old child needs the mother more than the father, but that’s not the case. The child only needs the mother when she is breastfeeding; when not breastfeeding, there is no scientific proof that a child feels better when it’s held by the mother than when it’s held by the father, yet society thinks that it’s the mother that should always carry the child.”
A question of paternity
So what legislative solutions are available to equalise women’s positions in the Polish workplace? One place to look for examples is Scandinavia.
In Sweden, 85 percent of fathers take paternity leave, and, according to a recent article in the New York Times, those who do not are frowned upon by colleagues and family members. Granted, this is a country where male government ministers call themselves feminists, and cleaning product advertisements feature men as the housekeepers. Nonetheless, with two months of the 13-month parental leave designated for fathers, Swedish fathers are taking full advantage of the law and spending more and more time with their newborn children.
This shift towards paternity leaves with benefits, first implemented in 1995, has influenced the Swedish workplace dramatically. For every month a father takes leave, the mother’s earnings increase by seven percent on average, according to the Swedish Institute of Labour Market Policy Evaluation. In addition, generous parental benefits and the availability of childcare has let Sweden maintain one of the highest birth rates in the Western world, along with very high female employment rates. Finally, since 1995, divorce rates have dropped in Sweden, while rising in most other EU countries.
Amongst other European nations, Portugal is the only one that requires a father to take paternity leave, but only for one week. In Germany, two months of the 14-month leave is designated for fathers, and more than 20 percent of fathers have taken advantage of this legislation since it was implemented in 2007. In Iceland, a total of 12 months of leave are divided into three months for the mother, three for the father, and six to share.
How does Poland compare? According to Polish law, new fathers have the right to take one week of paternity leave within a year of the birth of the child, which will be extended to two weeks starting in 2011. However, out of the 110,000 eligible fathers last year, only 2,500 took this leave. In part, this is the fault of a lack of information about the legislation, which has not been widely publicised by the current government. But more significantly, men are in fear of losing their positions at work.
“This is a cultural difference between the demands made on men and women in regards to childcare,” Ms. Kwaśniewska explained. “It’s an excuse, as I see it, when men ‘escape’ to work from their children, and it’s perfectly OK. The argument that the man has to feed the family is no longer valid, because we can both earn money now.”
Ms. Kwaśniewska speculated that it will take at least another generation for gender roles to transform in Poland, and part of the change will have to come from the state school system. “I also think that my daughter will be treated completely differently by the culture than I was, because I grew up in this environment where my teachers in school – female teachers, because in primary school 90 percent were female – would tell us during class that certain things are not for girls.”
“The change has to come from the women who are now teachers,” she continues. “It is already different, because we have more freedom. My daughter will observe far more women in different roles than I did.
“I think there is a big change happening in the roles of each sex. It’s a revolution. Each revolution is at times frustrating, scary, and has its attackers, so we are currently in a difficult situation.”
See also: Interview: Judyta Kwaśniewska