Business in the V4: Still a no women’s land

Less than 10% of the board members of Central Europe’s biggest companies are women. The glass ceiling has some cracks, but without serious changes in the region’s socio-political landscape, very few will have the chance to break it.

Photo: Sam Javanrouh

The share of women executive board members does not exceed 10% in any of the region’s countries. The Czech Republic attains the best score, followed by Hungary. The gender disproportion is the biggest in Slovakia and Poland. In general terms, corporate business management seems to be the arena where V4 women face hidden barriers considering a much higher number of university female graduates.

When Mary Barra, 52, was appointed CEO of General Motors in 2014, many considered it a major breakthrough for gender equality. After all, she had become the first female leader of a car manufacturer that had been in business for over 100 years. And this was in a sector, where people referring to “she,” were typically talking about cars, not executives. But Ms. Barra shrugged off reporters when they asked her the typical gender questions. “My gender doesn’t really factor into my thinking as I come into the room,” she said. 1 It was her achievement and not the clothes she wore that mattered.

In Europe, role models like Barra are rare. Except for women at the CEO-level, the old continent is doing only slightly better than the US: according to the European Commission’s latest statistics, women account for 23% of the board members of the largest publicly-listed companies registered in EU countries. 2 However, it also means that women remain seriously underrepresented in decision-making positions, both in politics and in the corporate sector. In 2010, the European Commission launched the Strategy for Equality between Women and Men, to increase the so-called “under-represented” sex’s presence on the non-executive boards of large, publicly-listed companies to 40%, but the proposal has not attained the expected results, or been widely welcomed in many countries. 3

Striking inequality in the V4

As the survey prepared for the V4Revue reveals, gender inequality is more striking in the V4 than in western Europe. One might think that the socialist system’s legacy – where both men and women were expected to work full-time, and gender equality was overemphasized at all levels (at least in discourse) – would have left some traces behind, but this is not the case. Women’s representation on the executive board of the 25 biggest companies in the V4 is well under 10% (see graph 1.1). The Czech Republic attains the best score – 9.6% of executive board members are women, while in Hungary 8.6% are,  followed by Slovakia with 6.7% and Poland with 6.4%. Poland, however, boasts the only female CEO of the region: Malgorzata Kolakowska, president of ING Bank Slaski. 4 Interestingly and probably not accidentally, two of the six vice presidents of ING Bank Slaski are also women.

Taken together the picture is rather gloomy: the biggest companies 5 – Poland’s PKN Orlen, Volkswagen in Slovakia, Czech Republic’s Skoda and Hungary’s Mol – do not have a single woman on their boards. One might say these industries (automotive and oil) are traditionally male territories, but Mary Barra’s example at GM indicates otherwise. The situation is especially disappointing in Poland, where there are no female board members at the first six companies. However, it must be noted, Polish women do excel as entrepreneurs.

On a positive note, there are women on the boards of large companies in the other V4 countries (see graph 1.2). In Slovakia for example, the US Steel Kosice has a female vice president, Elena Petrášková. And women tend to do relatively well in the financial sector: Elena Kohutiková reached the vice presidency of the second largest Slovak bank, Všeobecná úverová banka. In fact, with the exception of the largest, all Slovakian banks have at least one female board member. In the Czech Republic women board members tend to be responsible for finance, a traditionally male-dominated sector, and Agrofert, the country’s third largest company, has two women on its board.

In Hungary, Erzsébet Knáb has excelled in the car-industry, and become the human resources board member at Audi, the country’s second largest company. At GE, the fourth-ranked company, Andrea Mészáros Szabóné occupies the oil and gas plant managerial position, surely not a typical position for women. Women also have relatively strong representation in Hungary’s financial sector, with Ágnes Bába serving as deputy chief executive of the second largest bank, Kereskedelmi és Hitelbank, and Bernadett Tátrai serving as the  retail division director at third-ranked, Unicredit.

Shall we consider them exceptions, examples of a new trend, or just excellent managers who competed with their male colleagues on equal grounds and achieved their positions on their own merit?

In general terms, many Central Europeans still have reservations about promoting women into leadership positions. Arguments range from the alleged “protection of women” to overt skepticism in their abilities. The business world is stressful and pushy, requiring long and physically backbreaking hours and a total dedication, which might consume your personality. One is expected to show no emotions, and be merciless and exclusively profit-oriented, in other words: it is not a “woman’s world.” And after all, aren’t there enough qualified men to do these jobs? Why push for more women?

There are a number of obvious reasons: the European Commission quotes a study by Asa Löfström, called “Gender equality, economic growth and employment,” which argues that if women’s productivity levels rose to men’s levels, Europe’s GDP would increase by 27%. 6 Women’s talents are critically underutilized, especially in decision-making, and a change for the better would have a clear economic impact.

The McKinsey “Women Matter” study demonstrates that there is a positive correlation between the share of women in high-level positions and company performance. 7 While higher education statistics, prove that more than half of Europe’s university graduates are women. 8 Logically, it should be in a state’s best interest to create a favorable business environment, where women could use their degrees and attain well-paid jobs, while also contributing to the social security and tax systems.

Beáta Nagy, a sociologist based at Corvinus University in Budapest tells the V4Revue that economic data from the last few years clearly reveals that companies that had at least one woman on the board, fared the financial crisis better. Although some might attribute these companies’ relative success to the widespread notion that women tend to take fewer risks, there is no reliable data to underline it. And according to Nagy, these companies were and are successful because, “diversity leads to better decision-making.” 9
The career killers: societal prejudice and lacking familial support systems

Diversity is definitely not something common in the V4 corporate world. The reasons can be summed up as: personal ambitions and background, corporate structure and the socio-economic environment.

One crucial question is whether women with leadership ambition can rely on their families, or husbands for support. Without a secure “hinterland” most do not venture to even aspire to higher goals. Housework and children are still primarily seen as women’s duties in Central Europe, and this is incompatible with the long working hours required by many companies. While the majority of male executives can count on their wives’ support, and fully concentrate on their careers, very few women can boast about this advantage. As Nagy points out, divorce is more common and finding a new partner is much more challenging for women than for men in similar leadership positions.

Harmonizing work and family life seems to be a major challenge for women in all V4 countries. Long parental leaves (the Czech Republic is a record-holder with a maximum of four years per child) are a real career-killer across the whole region. Veronika Šprincová, a representative from Prague’s Forum 50%, an NGO that promotes gender equality, tells the V4Revue that, “this makes the return to the job market almost impossible.” Much dedication, strict time management and sometimes outside help is needed if a mother wants to have a serious career.

Take Michaela Chaloupková, board member of ČEZ, a major Czech player in power utilities, and one of the few women who made it up to the board-level of the TOP 25. Her story is not typical but it reveals the special organizational hurdles women face, and the unorthodox solutions they must find. At 35, Chaloupková had her first child and was simultaneously promoted onto the ČEZ board. Defying tradition, she returned to work three weeks after giving birth, partly working from home and partly taking the baby into the office; her son has been attending kindergarten since he was six months old. Recently she had a second child, and now she takes her baby and nanny with her to the office, so she only has to break away for breastfeeding. She confesses that her success lies in her discipline and having the ability to strictly divide work and family time, and a very supportive husband with whom she shares the housework equally. 10

Another example could be Gabriella Kádár, president of CIG Insurance Company, who recently told Hungarian daily, Népszabadság:  “I leave the office at six, spend my time with my son until nine, and then often work until midnight. But I see my younger colleagues involving their husbands much more in the family life. Yes, a mentality change is necessary. I definitely do not read traditional bedtime-stories to my son about ‘mom cooking and dad reading the newspaper.’” 11 These challenges are mostly unknown for the majority of men, who simply delegate the family logistics and childrearing to their wives.

Elena Kohútiková, vice chair of VÚB, Slovakia’s second largest bank, acknowledges that climbing the corporate ladder required much personal sacrifice; and she has had quite an impressive career, having worked at Slovak National Bank, the institution managing the  introduction of the euro. When my kids were still small, I was only able to manage by cutting down on sleep and personal hobbies. What helped me was the clear planning of work duties and keeping schedules – I have always had a clock in my office and I followed the time,” she explained in an online discussion in the Slovak tabloid, 12 When she did not have time for the household, she delegated tasks to her two daughters, who she thinks, “actually benefited from the experience: they are capable of managing their own households, can deal with money and make decisions quickly,” she said.

But even the younger generation admits that gender prejudice is still a typical obstacle they face. The whole region has a difficulty shaking stereotypes, especially in rural areas. Zuzana Vojteková, a Slovakia-born consultant in Prague, recalls her surprise when she visited eastern Slovakia a few years ago as a newly appointed board member of a hospital network, and was mistaken as the wife of the CEO.  “The men started flirting with me at the official reception, apparently not even listening to the speeches, where I had been introduced as the new COO,” she told the V4Revue, with a laugh. For the men in their 50s or 60s, who were managing hospitals or local branches of health insurance companies, having a woman “boss” was unimaginable. Some entrepreneurs in the region still have difficulty dealing with female board members, simply ignoring them in meetings, so women must have the self-confidence to cope with these types of frustrations.

In the V4 gender equality usually only exists on paper, and many employers still refrain from awarding women the higher positions, arguing that they are not the familial breadwinners. “If there is a male and female candidate for the same job, employers unconsciously tend to favor the man, since he probably has to support his family and needs the money,” Šprincová says. Her experience shows that women are usually much less assertive, lack confidence during job interviews, and shrink from asking for wage increases or promotions. Men, however, are much more conscious of their own skills and much better at self-marketing.

According to Anna Grosiak, Head of Business Development of Siemens Poland, low self-confidence is a serious hurdle for women in the technology sector. A lot of clichés still prevail about what is considered a man or a woman’s world. “At the company level there is a clear ambition to bring more women on board, because our experience proves that a more diverse group brings better results. But it […] requires that companies adapt: they can start in the engineering sector by offering such basic requirements as having more ladies’ toilets and changing rooms,” Grosiak explains to the V4Revue. But she is optimistic, at least in Poland, where she sees more housework and childcare burden-sharing between women and men, especially in the country’s urban centers. Women still have a lot on their shoulders, she acknowledges, but there is a, “light at the end of the tunnel.”

Fighting back

In order to excel, women also have to change their approach and mentality. When necessary, they have to challenge the rules of the game and defend their rights. Petra Procházková, the CFO of the Czech food processing giant, Agrofert Holding, is another one of the few women promoted to the board of a top 25 company in the V4. She often recalls how she faced discrimination at her very first job, working as a programmer at the fire department in Kladno. “I found out that I was not entitled to the same level of remuneration for the same work because I was female. I was not willing to accept that and quit,” she told Hospodářské Noviny 13 “I did not care that I ended up jobless. He (the boss) offended me and even if I had had to survive solely on plain potatoes, I would not have considered coming back,” she recalls.

Kohútiková, VÚB’s vice chair, faced similar difficulties at the start of her career. Her first employer, the heavy Machinery Enterprise in Dubnica nád Váhom, gave her a considerably lower salary just to impart that ambitious women were not welcomed there. “Such were the times,” she recalled in an interview with Žena SME, the female-focused section of the daily, SME. 14 “When I started my university studies, even my father, a cultivated and well-educated man, told me that he did not think women should study – ‘Elenka, get married and have children.’ This was his advice, and I know he meant well,” she said. Things got better when she moved to Bratislava, where she was promoted to department director of the male-dominated Central Bank. While she found this surprising, she found it utterly motivating at the same time.

Most of the women in high positions confess that they made the conscious decision not to subordinate their careers to family life, but maintain their families and careers as equally important. This is often a rough ride, and flexibility, the constant mastery of new skills, and the readiness for surprising career changes are needed. A good example is Ms Erzsébet Knáb, Audi Hungary’s HR director, the only female board member within the entire Audi company. Knáb, a happily married woman in her mid-50s, and the mother of one adult son, was originally a linguist, and owes much of her success to her impeccable German.

Her story runs contrary to the general assumption that few bridges exist between the academic world and the business sector, showing that transitions are possible. Knáb was a automobile sector outlier, but acquired the necessary management skills as the long-time director general of the Cultural Center of the German Minority in Hungary, an umbrella organization for seven entities. “I’m still handling and motivating people, like I did before. The only difference is that in my previous position we were producing an intellectual product, while at Audi, it is a concrete object: a motorbike or a car,” she explained in an interview with Autószektor, a branch-publication. 15

Interestingly though, most women who reach top positions are ambiguous about advocating for an outright female quota in the business world, and instead promote more “self-marketing” instead. “There are always those that walk around with tables and charts and present the results, and then there are other people who do the actual work, but the fruits of success are reaped by the presenters,” said Czech Agrofert’s CFO, Petra Procházková, in an interview with Hospodářské Noviny.

Her compatriot, CEZ board member, Michaela Chaloupková is not an avid supporter of the quota either, but believes that coaching, flexible working hours and individual trainings are the answer. She also advocates a change in women’s mentality: “My role is to offer opportunities. However, women must want to make use of them. Ask for what you want. Women often do not ask for the positions they want, even if they are very competent; instead they wait for the offer. You have to be very active: you must ask for the job, and then direct all your intention in that direction. And you must also prepare the people around you – especially your family,” she said in an interview published on Pro Fair Play’s website. 16

Representing the 60+ generation, Elena Kohútiková, Slovakia’s “banking lady” thinks she is responsible for passing on her business and management experiences to the younger generation of women. She believes it is essential that women aren’t just portrayed in the media as mothers and wives, but also as professionally successful people. This can boost women’s confidence and can help them overcome their fears of failure.

As vice chair of VUB she conducts surveys to find out what women – especially those with children – see as the major obstacles to their career growth. She hopes to improve female VUB employees’ working environment. “Since we understand their specific needs, we offer them a number of benefits that make their lives easier. For example, they can make use of shorter working hours before Christmas, so that they can bake Christmas cookies; or get a day off when their children go to school for the first time,” she explained on’s online discussion.  17

Politics matter

As some women have already achieved leadership positions, a network of potential supporters is developing. Private ambitions do matter, but a crucial factor in gender equality is the social and political environment. With a current and former female prime minister, Poland is the clear frontrunner, having had a female in that office now for some 15 years, so gender equality is in many ways self-evident. Poland is still a fundamentally Catholic and patriarchal society, but the introduction of a quota to achieve 35% women in politics has sent a positive sign to society: if you have the necessary competence and ambition, your sex should not be a hurdle.

Quotas for the business sector are still far away, but female role models’ media presence, and successful women’s involvement in support networks might bring about the necessary changes. “In the past we used to have female CEOs who could care less about supporting women colleagues, after all, they made it to the top all on their own. But today it is not trendy to neglect your network,” says Anna Grosiak.

While Poland lags behind the regional average for the number of females on the boards of businesses, the country also has a high ratio of female entrepreneurs, setting up their own companies rather than climbing the ladder in multinational or state-owned enterprises. Take Dr. Irena Eris, founder and CEO of the largest cosmetic company in the region, or Solange Olszewszka, CEO of the family-run Solaris Bus and Coach company, a major European producer of city and intercity buses and low-floor trams.

It is important to add that the relatively high presence of women in politics and in mid-level (or sometimes even high-level) management positions are achievements of a grass-root movement, the Women’s Congress (Kongres Kobiet), which is the second largest social movement in Poland after Solidarność. The Congress, organized yearly and attended by the president and prime minister, serves as an active network for women who are fighting for gender equality and provides a favorable social environment for those with career ambitions.

The Women’s Congress’ founder, Henryka Bochniarz, a former minister and regional CEO of Boeing is one of the role models. Bochniarz, now 68, started as a researcher but soon found herself working as a consultant in the business world. Having two children and nine grandchildren, she was able to find the delicate balance between family and career. She is currently the President of Lewiatan, the Employers’s Organization and an avid supporter of real parity (50%) in leadership positions. “I’m not fighting for myself any more, but for my daughter-in-law and my grandchildren,” she said in a special supplement of the Hungarian weekly, Figyelő. 18

The current public discussion on quotas in the Czech Republic might also accelerate societal changes. The European Commission’s proposal to implement a 40% female quota as a target for major companies, has become a hotly politicized issue. In a rather paradoxical situation, the quota Prague so vehemently opposed was advocated by Věra Jourová, the Czech member of the Commission, who was actually  delegated by the ruling coalition. A compromise finally emerged: rather than a fixed quota, companies were directed to strive for a better gender balance on their supervisory boards (management boards were not included in the Czech directive). It might seem like a Pyrrhic victory, but according to Veronika Šprincová of Prague’s Forum 50%, the debate itself helped put the gender issue on the agenda and facilitate public discourse.

There are also clear signs of a mentality change in Slovakia. As more youngsters go abroad to study, they are returning with a completely different mindset, especially if they have the chance to study in the US. Gender prejudices and clichés are shrinking. “The challenges are similar for men and women: get the best education and then learn to sell your skills. And yes, men also have to learn to compete with women. In a corporate world you get used to a very competitive environment, where only your achievements and your results count. On the other hand, you have to pay a price: it often means sacrificing your private life and working 14 hours a day. It applies to everybody, regardless of being a man or a woman,“ Vojteková points out.

Meanwhile Hungary is turning backwards: leading government politicians are making remarks, many widely quoted, that are strengthening the notion that women should have at least three children, while men should be the main breadwinners. “A woman’s task is not to earn as much as a man. A woman should fulfil the female principle: to belong to somebody and bear children,” summarized Ákos Kovács, a popstar and vocal supporter of the governing party. His comments caused a major upheaval on social media but he found support in his political field. 19

Whereas in Europe there seems to be a common understanding that the ratio of women should be increased in decision making positions (although implementation methods vary), the idea is not shared by the Hungarian political elite. In a country where female representation in the parliament is only 9%, and there is not a single female minister in the cabinet, involving more women in corporate decision-making is simply not on the political agenda. It all remains the domain of individual companies: whether they consider promoting women “trendy,” useful for their image or economically beneficial. Hope lies in the multinational companies that tend to follow their mother organization’s practices and thus import a modernized, more gender-balanced work culture.

Not a lost battle

Success in the corporate world requires special dedication, clear ambition and a lot of self-confidence. This is equally true for men and women. However, in the latter’s case, the education system which is often full of gender-clichés, a lack of household burden-sharing and longstanding stereotypes, constitute further obstacles. The portrayal of successful women in the media could serve as a push factor for many young girls who contemplate having a serious professional career.

Changes are underway, as more and more women achieve leading positions either as managers or as entrepreneurs. On the gloomy side, the overall social-political environment can be a real drawback. The presence or non-presence of political role models are sending an important message to women concerning their own chances. It is tempting to say that politics and business are a world apart, but this is not really the case.

The full data visualisation is available here. In case you would like to receive the full data set for either country or the whole V4, send us an email at rebecca(at)

The article is part of the project “Learning about causes and effects of gender (im)balance in Central Europe” funded by the European Union flag_yellow_high
The content series was created by the V4Revue, not by the funder.


  1. Nathan Bomey, “GM CEO Mary Barra: ‘My gender’ not a factor,” USA Today January 23, 2014,
  2. European Commission, “Board members,” 2015
  3. Strategy for Equality Between Women and Men (2010-2015), European Commission, Strategy adopted in September 2010,
  4. She was president of ING Bank until March 2016, to take up the position of Global Head of Networks, Wholesale Banking.
  5. Size determined by revenue.
  6. European Commission’s Network to Promote Women in Decision-making in Politics and the Economy, “The Qouta-instrument: different approaches across Europe,” Working paper, June 2011,
  7. European Commission, Women on Boards – Factsheet 1: The economic arguments, 2012,
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  9. Interview with Ms Beáta Nagy for V4Revue, 2016. 02.16.
  10. Zuzana Andělová, “Ženy v Top managementu – JUDr. Michaela Chaloupková, MBA,” Pro Fair Play February 21, 2015,
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  13. Hospodářské Noviny (currently not available), c1-65105970-agrofert-mam-pod-kuzi-prozradila-vitezka-ankety-top-zeny-byznysu.
  14. Katarína Lešková, “Elena Kohútiková: Každé ráno sa teším na to, čo,” SME Zena January 24, 2010,
  15. Koloszár Tamás, “Dr. Knáb Erzsébet:az Audi-konszern egyetlen női menedzsere,” Autószektor, May 12, 2014,
  16. Zuzana Andělová, “Ženy v Top managementu – JUDr. Michaela Chaloupková, MBA,” Pro Fair Play, February 21, 2015,
  17. “Úspešná žena v biznise manažuje rodinu aj firmu: Prezradila dve vzácne rady od svokry!”, May 19, 2015,–Prezradila-dve-vzacne-rady-od-svokry-.
  18. Harc a női kvótáért, Inotai Edit, Lengyelország (Figyelő melléklete) November, 2015,
  19. Arckép, Kovács Ákos, Echo TV, December 13, 2015,
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worked as a correspondent in Berlin after earning her PhD at Corvinus University, Budapest. She served as a journalist at the Foreign Desk of Népszabadság from 1997-2003 and her main areas were European affairs, Spain, Latin-America with a special envoy to Madrid, Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile. In 2010 she became the Foreign Editor of Népszabadság and served in this position until 2014.