Prague, Czech Republic – If the road to inequality is paved with good intentions, Czech women might know one or two things we don’t.
By many accounts more socially liberal than many of its Central and Eastern European neighbours, the Czech Republic still faces an uphill battle to promote gender equality in employment and strengthen the integration and retention of women on the labour market.
A loss-loss situation
The picture could hardly be any clearer. Czech women earn on average 20% less than their male counterparts, one of the highest gender pay gaps among EU countries, and up to 40% less in some male-dominated sectors like banking and finance.
Representing 60% of university graduates, they account for less than 45% of the workforce. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, the Czech Republic ranks 78th out of 156 countries, the fifth lowest score among EU economies. And despite being tied at the first place in the education attainment category, the country drops below 100 when it comes to wage equality.
Respectively 11% and 4% of executive and CEO positions are held by women, who are twice as likely as men to live under the poverty level, according to a Social Watch report.
For an economy struggling with notoriously acute labour shortages, the relative exclusion of women from employment represents an untapped pool of growth, equality, and development. According to McKinsey, empowering women on the labour market could unlock half a trillion Czech crowns in the annual gross domestic product (nearly 10% of GDP).
“The more a woman invests in herself, the higher she climbs, the more she loses in pay,” gender expert Lenka Simerska unequivocally summarizes.
Pinpointing the exact reasons for enduring gender inequalities on the Czech labour market is not an easy task.
Stereotypes among male employers remain prevalent in many sectors and companies. “But the biggest stereotypes are the ones their closest family and friends hold,” explains Barbora Bühnová, associate professor at Masaryk University in Brno and co-founder of Czechitas, a local non-profit founded in 2014 to empower girls and women in IT and computing careers.
“Motivated by the ‘best intentions’, these cliches suggest IT or other sectors are not a place where girls and women can succeed, and where their talents would be valued and recognised,” she told Kafkadesk, stressing that these gender roles are instilled from a very young age.
Number one in Europe when it comes to the difficulty in filling ICT vacancies, the Czech Republic’s labour shortage problems push salaries higher. “But women are more often happy with ‘high-enough’ salaries”, Barbora Bühnová from Czechitas tells us. “It’s pretty common for them not to ask for a raise, contrary to men who are more likely to ask for one, and get it.”
Greater wage transparency in Czech companies has also been identified by experts as a factor that could give women more bargaining power, while the absence of clear and publicly available pay tables means that wages are often the result of individual negotiations, usually to the detriment of women.
Self-censorship from Czech women evidently comes into play. A study showed that nearly half of Czechs take it for granted that women don’t have the opportunity to earn as much as men. Tellingly, women are more likely to agree with this statement. Similarly, several polls have highlighted that female workers are much more likely than men to attribute a lack of success in their professional lives to themselves, rather than to exterior factors.
But according to most analysts, the central, overriding factor lies elsewhere.
Dropping the taboo on the maternity leave
“The three-year maternity leave is almost unparalleled in the world. In the Czech Republic, it’s completely normal,” economist Kamila Fialova explains, hinting at the core of the problem.
Following successive reforms since the fall of communism, the Czech Republic has emerged as one of the countries offering the longest and most generous maternity leaves in Europe.
Introduced in 1990, the three-year “job protected period” was amended five years later to extend the maternity leave to up to four years on a voluntary basis. A 2008 reform offered more freedom and flexibility to parents on how long they would prefer to stay at home after the birth of their child – from 2 to 4 years – and the level of allowance they’d like to draw, adjusted accordingly.
“The Czech gender pay gap is very clearly linked to the maternity leave,” says Hana Stelzerová, head of the Czech Women’s Lobby (CWL), an association bringing together nearly 40 organisations working on gender equality topics and the protection of women’s rights.
Although technically available to either of the parents, it is in the vast majority of cases women who decide to interrupt their career and stay home to care for their child for two to three years, “as men are still perceived as the providers”, Hana Stelzerová notes.
Considering how many Czech women have two children, often at succession, the maternity leave can easily leave them out of a job for five or six years – a consequential parenthesis strengthening the pay gap, reinforcing self-censorship among women and their financial dependence on their male partner, and fueling many employers’ stereotypes on the “added risk” involved in employing women in high-level positions.
With insufficient institutional support, a lack of flexible working arrangements and uneven daycare options, motherhood becomes a major hurdle for Czech women willing to combine domestic responsibility with their career.
Combining motherhood and career
At 75%, the employment rate of working-age women in the Czech Republic is higher than the EU average but records a drastic fall to 44% (nearly 20 percentage points lower than the European average) for women with pre-school children.
Czech economist Kamila Fialova points to a combination of “long maternity leaves, the unavailability of pre-school care facilities and the low use of part-time work” preventing women from finding a work-life balance that suits their needs – especially for single mothers, who make up around 85% of single-parent families in the Czech Republic.
According to Eurostat, the Czech Republic has the second lowest number of nurseries per child under the age of 3, and the single lowest share of children under the age of 3 attending formal childcare (only 6%, compared to 35% EU-wide) – highlighting a crucial lack of affordable nurseries and kindergartens for parents unable to cover the high cost of private options.
There are positive signs that things may be slowly changing for the better, however. Gender roles are evolving, with fathers spending more and more time with their children and many of them in favour of extending the short paternity leave, adopted in the Czech Republic in 2018.
“Some employers are also becoming aware that maternity leaves and flexible working arrangements can be beneficial for the company,” Hana Stelzerová from CWL tells Kafkadesk. “Helping employees take some time off and reboot can be good for long-term retainment, keeping experienced workers and avoiding too much turnover and fluctuation in the workforce.”
Small but encouraging signs that the mindset might be shifting towards greater equality and inclusivity despite the multiple hurdles standing in the way.
This article is published as part of a project to promote independent digital media in Central and Eastern Europe funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and coordinated by Notes from Poland.
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By Jules Eisenchteter
Freelance journalist based in Prague, Jules is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Kafkadesk.