Women’s Employment in Eastern Europe – Towards More Equality?

By Akvile Motiejunaite

What has happened to women’s employment in Eastern Europe? Have women solely become housewives and unemployed? Or have they retained their positions at work? These are central questions when discussing gender inequality in Eastern Europe. Most commonly, researchers and politicians have emphasised that women have become the losers of the transition, that societies became more traditional and unequal, that childcare disappeared, etc. In this article, I will try to outline some of the fallacies of these views and argue for the signs of more gender equality at work.

In socialist countries, full-time and full female employment was a reality. When Western European women were fighting for economic independence for married women, which usually resulted in women taking up part-time employment, women in socialist countries were already entering the workforce in large numbers. Socialist countries were pioneers in introducing legal equality between men and women and promoting equal access to education. Full male and female employment was tied to a universal social security system in which every woman was entitled to paid maternity leave and every child to widely available and affordable child-care. Yet, the state supported the dual role of women as “workers” and “mothers”, while maintaining the single role of “workers” for men. This order created some complications. Women were loaded with the notorious ‘double burden”: full-time paid employment plus sole responsibility for household duties. The lower female position in employment was manifested in a persistent occupational segregation and gender gap concerning salaries. Men, on the other hand, were (as before) estranged from domestic and care work and thus only weakly integrated into the family.

This system collapsed in the 1990s when political and economical changes led to the emergence of a new kind of labour organisation. Regarding the distribution of work between men and women several future developments could have occurred: (a) towards more traditional and unequal gender roles, (b) retaining the existing work division, or (c) towards more equal arrangements. Although there are several possible outcomes, the fear that traditionalism will increase has dominated the scientific debate on the Eastern European transition.

Why women should have been the losers: emphasising traditional attitudes

Emerging labour markets in Eastern Europe brought about a huge decrease in the employment rate. The scientific community and women activists considered women one of the most disadvantaged groups. Such notion was based upon the fact that in socialist countries, “women’s emancipation” was promoted by authoritarian governments rather than by social movements. This argument stressed that the socialist policies left traditional gender roles uncontested. Instead of emancipation, women were burdened with both full-time paid employment and unpaid household responsibilities. According to this line of reasoning, women should have perceived their jobs as an obligation to be endured, not as a benefit worth defending. Since women in socialist, as in capitalist, economies were concentrated in lower levels of organizational hierarchies, poorer remunerated positions, and less valued sectors of the economy, they would be happy to retreat to the family once full employment was no longer imposed. Some commentators even claimed that women perceived post-socialist liberation “as a right not to work” (Lissyutkina 1993: 274).

Yet women’s free choice to devote themselves to the family was only one part of the explanation. As post-socialist economies were restructured, unemployment and social insecurity rose. The emerging nationalist discourses tended to idealize a pre-socialist past associated with the male-breadwinner family model, in which the husband earned money and the wife stayed at home with the children. Rejecting the top–down nature of the state-socialist emancipation of women and the regaining of traditional gender identity is seen as “an important aspect of the nostalgia for ‘normality’” (Watson 1993: 473). It was common that politicians, clergy, and even reporters publicly encouraged women to return to the family, emphasizing their primary duty as wives and mothers. The “cult of domesticity” ideologies (Gal & Kligman 2000; Heinen 1995), which coincided with increasing levels of economic insecurity, had two rationales: first, if women stayed at home with the children, more jobs would be available to men, and second, if women had more children, birth rates (which were falling rapidly) would also increase. The idealization of motherhood went hand in hand with slogans such as “Lithuania needs more Lithuanians” (Gineitienė 1998). The traditional family model where the husband brought home the money and the wife raised the children was even portrayed as a solution to broader societal problems, such as juvenile delinquency.1

The idealisation of traditional roles for men and women was manifested not only in women’s choices, but also in employer’s attitudes and behaviour. This is vividly summarized by Kanopienė (1999: 108): “the general attitude of men as breadwinners and the assignment of the rest of family roles to women might become, with the expansion of the private sector of the economy, a decisive factor, a priori determining the position of females in gainful employment”. This argumentation centred on the employers, who viewed women as more expensive, less reliable and thus less desirable workers due to their family responsibilities. When labour demand decreases, employers get rid of the less valuable workers, i.e. usually women, first. And when the demand increases, employers give priority to hiring men.

Combining employer’s preferences, women’s support for traditional roles and the strong “motherhood-oriented” public discourse, the decrease in women’s labour force participation after 1990 seemed inevitable. Yet, the economic hardships of the transition made women’s earnings even more essential for households than before. Some studies also indicate that women did not want to choose the housewife role as predicted.2 The vast majority of women preferred to maintain independent careers rather than being housewives. Such evidence suggests that women remained more attached to professional activity than expected.

The focus on traditional gender ideologies largely dominated the debate on gender inequalities in Eastern Europe. Yet, as van der Lippe and Fodor (1998: 132) noted, “the empirical evidence for these statements is scarce, mostly anecdotal and impressionistic”. The common feature of these studies was a focus on women and their losses, neglecting the importance of comparisons with the situation of men, with conditions in the socialist period, or with conditions in other countries. The arguments frequently used selected data referring to separate spheres. Such argumentation can partly be explained by the fact that the techniques for gathering and classifying aggregated statistical data were changing, making it difficult (or sometimes impossible) to find comparable indicators.

Certain groups of women were doing fine: re-valued resources

One of the first surveys that deliberately aimed at evaluating the changes in Eastern Europe was ‘Social Stratification in Eastern Europe after 1989’, designed by Szelényi and Treiman and conducted in 1993 in six countries: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Russia, and Slovakia. Contrasting the 1993 information from this survey with retrospective accounts of 1988 in those countries, van der Lippe and Fodor (1998) found no evidence that women suffered major setbacks in their economic position compared to that of men. Instead, gender inequality continued developing along patterns already established in the socialist period. The gender gap in employment levels did not grow and women managed to retain similar levels of authority. Surrounded by the impression of the deteriorating position of women in the Eastern European labour force, the authors admitted they were surprised at the results.

Based on the findings of the ‘Social Stratification’ survey, Fodor (1997) formulated an alternative ‘re-valued resources’ explanation of gender differences in employment. She argues that the socialist-period mechanisms of occupational segregation which steered women into less prestigious occupations and positions now form valuable assets for women in a market economy. Women were on average more educated than men, yet men received higher salaries in manual jobs. Higher education and better knowledge of foreign languages became important re-valued resources after the transition. In the state socialist economy, service sector positions were less prestigious than those in production and were thus dominated by women. In the market economy, work experience in the expanding service sector became an advantage for many women, while many men had to struggle for jobs in the declining industrial or agricultural sectors. Although Fodor expressed some fears that these re-valued resources might prove to be only temporary assets before men start pushing women out of prestigious occupations, Ghodsee’s (2005) recent book on women working in Bulgaria’s tourism sector provides a vivid example of the lasting success of this shift. Tourism is one of the few successful and expanding sectors, but still remains dominated by women even in higher positions.

Present issues: women still employed and social support improving

Exploration of the present situation in Eastern Europe can provide some useful insights into possible further directions. Here, I offer a brief summary of the main issues that relate to work distribution between males and females: paid employment, childcare, and household duties. While presenting the main trends, I would like to note that there are many differences between the Eastern European countries, some diversity persisting along the lines already evident in the socialist period. Some new varieties emerged through the different routes taken in politics and policies, and most of the differences can be attributed to a combination of both. In this brief summary, I will try to present issues common to most East European countries. However, it is almost always possible to find one or more countries that depart from the general pattern.


  • Equal right to work reaffirmed. Equal pay, equal opportunities, and grievance procedures to deal with gender discrimination at work were reaffirmed or redeveloped in women’s favour (Pascall & Manning 2000).
  • Employment: women retain their role as earners. In analysing female employment in eight Eastern European member states, Pascall and Kwak (2005) concluded that the gender gap in employment rates was narrower than in countries with a long-standing male breadwinner tradition. Compared to the EU-15 countries, the labour markets are less segregated and the gender pay gap is slightly narrower, while women’s education compares favourably with men’s. The researchers concluded that ‘the need for women’s employment is strong, with low incomes compared with the West, widespread insecurity of work, and increased insecurity of marriage’ (Pascall & Kwak 2005: 44).
  • Part-time employment is rare and not a form of women’s work. It is rarely a strategy to balance paid work and domestic responsibilities. Since part-time work is one of the ways in which women are disadvantaged by caring responsibilities (Rubery et al. 1999), its unavailability should not pose serious problems for gender equality.


  • Child-care available. As comparable data indicates, the percentages of children (aged 3–6) in pre-school education are similar to or higher than in 1989 in most Eastern European countries (TransMONEE 2007).3 The data on nurseries caring for children aged 0–3 is rather scarce. Discussing nurseries in Hungary, Poland, and Romania, Fodor et al. (2002) did not notice any substantial reduction in service or marked state withdrawal from funding over the transition period. More important, child-care in Eastern European countries is available full-time, enabling full-time employment of parents.
  • Social policies supporting mothers’ employment remain legally in force, but financial support for them has been reduced. Family benefits, parental leave regulations, child-care provisions, and reproductive rights are still quite extensive (Fodor et al. 2002). The legal frameworks guarantee maternity and parental leave, with entitlements for approximately three years (Pascall & Kwak 2005). The relative level of financial support for families with children varies across countries, but benefits to compensate for income lost during leaves have tended to decline and were rather small compared to the cost of raising children during 1990s (Aidukaite 2006; Fodor et al. 2002; Pascall & Manning 2000). The decline in financial support was mostly a result of a huge economic crisis, and reflected financial abilities of the states. With growing economies and worries about aging population more financial support is directed to raising children.4
  • Signs of dual care: paternity leave has been introduced in several countries. Formally, fathers are allowed to take parental leave, but they rarely do so unless ‘forced’. Untranslatable paternity leave is one of the measures encouraging dual care. In this respect, Slovenia is the most advanced of the Eastern European countries, being comparable to Sweden and Denmark; it gives 2 weeks of non-transferable paternity leave and 4 months of transferable paid paternity leave (both 100 percent compensation) (Wall 2007). Some other countries give shorter paternity leave, for example Latvia gives 10 days of paid paternity leave at childbirth, Estonia 14 days, and Hungary 5 unpaid days (Pascall & Kwak 2005). Lithuania gives one month of 100 percent compensated leave for the father (Ministry of Social Security and Labour 2008).

Dual burden

Contrary to common assumptions, difficulties combining paid work with unpaid household work (sharing care work within the family) do not seem to be a specifically Eastern European problem. Informal care work is far from equally shared, but the survey data indicated that the dual workload in 2001 was more balanced between the sexes in 12 candidate countries than in the EU-15 countries (Paoli et al. 2002). Males were more involved in caring for children, cooking, and caring for elderly or disabled relatives in Eastern European countries than in the EU-15. Such observations hold on average. By comparing individual countries – for example, Sweden (which is quite advanced in notions of gender equality) with Russia (where men are largely alienated from the family) – we find that the opposite holds true. Nevertheless, a significant move towards more equally shared domestic work between the sexes should be noted in both Sweden and Russia over time (Kravchenko & Motiejunaite 2008).


Summarizing, it seems that fears of the return of the traditional family model in Eastern Europe do not have a solid basis. Today, policies to a greater or lesser degree support working mothers. Child-care was not dismantled after the socialist period, and men are more involved in household duties than are average Western European men. Highlighting just a few of the main aspects of gendered work patterns in Eastern Europe, it seems that the common misconceptions were usually based on assumption that traditional attitudes would prevail. Yet, even though gender-role attitudes vary considerably across Eastern European countries, some studies show that there is a trend towards less traditional attitudes over time (Haas et al. 2006; Motiejunaite 2008). Such a trend especially relates to a greater acceptance of women’s working roles.


Aidukaite, J. (2006) ‘The formation of social insurance institutions of the Baltic States in the post-socialist era’, Journal of European Social Policy, 16 (3): 259–270.

Fodor, E. (1997) ‘Gender in transition: Unemployment in Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia’, East European Politics and Societies, 11 (3): 470–500.

Fodor, E., Glass, C., Kawachi, J. and Popescu, L. (2002) ‘Family policies and gender in Hungary, Poland, and Romania’, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 35 (4): 475–490.

Gal, S. and Kligman, G. (2000) The politics of gender after socialism: a comparative-historical essay, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Ghodsee, K.R. (2005) The Red Riviera: gender, tourism, and postsocialism on the Black Sea, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Gineitienė, D. (1998) ‘The church, nationalism, and the reproductive rights of women’, in LaFont, S. (ed.), Women in Transition: Voices from Lithuania, New York: SUNY Press, pp. 81–89.

Haas, B., Steiber, N., Hartel, M. and Wallace, C. (2006) ‘Household employment patterns in an enlarged European Union’, Work, Employment & Society, 20 (4): 751–771.

Heinen, J. (1995) ‘Unemployment and Women’s Attitudes in Poland’, Social Politics, 2 (1): 91-110.

Kanopienė, V. (1999) ‘Combining Family and Professional Roles: Gender Differences’, Revue Baltique, 13): 97–109.

Kravchenko, Z. and Motiejunaite, A. (2008) ‘Women and men in employment and at home: gendered work patterns in Russia and Sweden (in Russian)’, Journal of Social Policy Studies 2): 177–200.

Lissyutkina, L. (1993) ‘Soviet Women at the Crossroads of Perestroika’, in Funk, N. and Mueller, M. (eds.), Gender politics and post-communism: reflections from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, New York: Routledge, pp. 274–286.

Ministry of Social Security and Labour (2008) ‘Social insurance benefits’, retrieved 2008-06-09 from http://www.socmin.lt/index.php?56358921.

Motiejunaite, A. (2008) Female employment, gender roles, and attitudes: the Baltic countries in a broader context, Stockholm: Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis.

Paoli, P., Persson, O. and Parent-Thirion, A. (2002) Working conditions in candidate countries and the European Union, Dublin: European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions.

Pascall, G. and Kwak, A. (2005) Gender regimes in transition in Central and Eastern Europe, Bristol, UK: Policy Press.

Pascall, G. and Manning, N. (2000) ‘Gender and social policy: comparing welfare states in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union’, Journal of European Social Policy, 10 (3): 240–266.

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Petrova, D. (1993) ‘The Winding Road to Emancipation in Bulgaria’, in Funk, N. and Mueller, M. (eds.), Gender politics and post-communism: reflections from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, New York: Routledge, pp. 22–29.

Rubery, J., Smith, M. and Fagan, C. (1999) Women’s employment in Europe: trends and prospects, London: Routledge.

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van der Lippe, T. and Fodor, E. (1998) ‘Changes in gender inequality in six eastern European countries’, Acta Sociologica, 41 (2): 131–149.

Wall, K. (2007) ‘Leave policy models and the articulation of work and family in Europe: a comparative perspective’, in Moss, P. and Wall, K. (eds.), International Review of Leave Policies and Related Research 2007, pp. 25–43.

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1Similar arguments are used in current debates about the expansion of publicly financed childcare in Germany. Some conservative politicians and Catholic clerics argue that a systematic extension of public childcare will hamper children’s development.

2Paukert (1991: 621) quoted ILO survey results indicating that, in 1989 in Czechoslovakia, 40% of women would refuse to become housewives even if their husbands’ or partners’ salaries increased considerably, while only 28% would give up their jobs to stay at home. Petrova (1993: 26) reported that 70% of surveyed Bulgarian women said they would prefer to work even if they were fully secure financially.

380 percent or more of children aged 3–6 were enrolled in pre-school education in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia, and Latvia in 2004–2005.

4For example, in Lithuania from 2008 paternity leave provides 100 compensation for the first year and 85% for the second (Ministry of Social Security and Labour 2008).


Om Akvile Motiejunaite 1 artikel
Akvile Motiejunaite, PhD, is a researcher in sociology at Södertörns högskola. She has recently defended her thesis "Female employment, gender roles, and attitudes: The Baltic countries in a broader context" (2008), which explores changes in work division between men and women in several Eastern European countries since 1990s