Cracks in the glass ceiling: Women in regional and local V4 politics

Although politics at regional and local levels is more accessible to women, female politicians still face various challenges – from entry barriers to key decision-making positions to the gender stereotyping of women’s political capabilities.

Photo: Thomas Hawk

Regional and local politics remain more open to women than national politics does, but leadership positions at all levels still elude female politicians. Women’s average proportion in regional and local assemblies does not reach more that 26% in Poland, 24% in the Czech Republic, and 21% in Hungary and Slovakia. However, the V4 average, 23%, is still better than the national average for the 19.4% female representation in the lower parliamentary houses, or the 15.8% representation in both lower and upper houses combined
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“I had both of my kids while serving as representative in the City Assembly of Budapest. And I have to admit, it was really hard to manage, but local politics is more accessible for women than national politics is,” says Kata Tüttő of her personal experience serving as a representative of Hungary’s capital city. 1

In an interview with the online, aktuálně.cz, Adriana Krnáčová, 2 who became Prague’s first female mayor in 2014, acknowledged that during the first few months of her tenure, some of her male colleagues underestimated her, letting her know they were not convinced a woman was fit for the position. 3

Polish politician, Wanda Nowicka, elected as a representative of the Masovian region in 1998, shared an interesting story with Euronews about how male politicians perceive their female counterparts: “When a woman talks in a gathering dominated by men, they usually don’t listen to her. They just play with their iPads. For many women it is difficult to face this, because she immediately thinks that she is not worthy – that she doesn’t say important things. Because if she were, they would listen to her,” she said. 4

In a previous article of the V4Revue’s ongoing gender series, Veronika Šprincová pointed out that V4 countries fall far below the EU and world average when it comes to balanced gender representation in national politics, with women politicians still absent from decision-making positions in Central Europe. 5 So is the situation better at the local and regional political levels? Are they more open to women, as Tüttő mentioned? And if so, what attracts more women to these positions?

The higher, the lesser

Jana Smiggels Kavková, director of Fórum 50%, a non-profit organization supporting the equal participation of both women and men in politics and decision making in the Czech Republic, recently pointed out that the local political scene is the only place in Czech politics where female representation is on the rise. 6 In the V4 more women can be found within local, rather than national politics. One obvious reason for this is because there are more seats at the local level, and therefore less competition for them.

However, even at the local and regional political levels, women in the V4 countries remain far from fairly-represented. As Tatiana Konrádová, municipal assembly member of the 5th district of Prague confirmed in an interview with Fórum 50%, “women’s representation in politics is really low,” and then added, “Czech society should stop discussing whether there are enough women in politics, or whether women’s minimal presence is due to their disinterest in politics. They are interested. Why wouldn´t they be?” 7

There are some important exceptions to the rule that can serve to change people’s perception of politics as a predominantly male business. We could mention women politicians who managed to reach the top positions in local politics, taking charge of the V4’s largest cities, like Dagmar Lastovecká, who became mayor of Brno in 1994, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz who became Warsaw’s mayor in 2006, or Adriana Krnáčová who moved into Prague’s mayoral ranks in 2014, among others. 8

However even at the local and regional levels, female representation in politics has generally not climbed over 30%, which is considered to be the critical minimum number to be reached for women to be more seen and heard. On Fórum 50%Kavková claims that “if development followed this pace, equal representation would be attained by 2038.” 9

Women that do manage to infiltrate the political ranks face a glass ceiling when it comes to attaining leadership positions. As Euronews correspondent, Anne Devineaux, argues: “After years of struggle, there are some cracks in the glass ceiling, but the higher we go in the ranks, the fewer female faces we see.” 10

This is the case at the local and regional political levels as well. As Hungary’s Kata Tüttő puts it, “where there is more power and higher stakes, there will also be more men.” The same pattern is found in other V4 countries, like Slovakia, where there are no chairwomen in regional government, and where only one female politician, Andrea Turčanová, managed to become mayor of the regional capital city, Prešov, in 2014. 11

A training ground for national politics

The low proportion of female politicians does not only affect local politics, but also has an impact on national politics too. Local and regional political offices offer significant training for, and a pathway to, national parliaments and governments.

It is not unusual for female politicians, who find success at the local levels to climb the ladder and enter national politics. Two female Polish prime ministers, Beata Szydlo, the current PM, and her predecessor, Ewa Kopacz, gained their initial political experience at the local levels – the latter as a councilor for the Masovian Voivodship and the former as mayor of Gmina Brzeszcze. Miroslava Němcová who served as chairwoman of the lower House of the Czech Parliament from 2010 to 2013 also began her political career as a mid-town council member. The same applies to Jaroslava Jermanová, the current vice-chairwoman of Andrej Babiš´ ANO 2011 movement, who initially served as the mayor of a small village and then as a mid-town council member.

When looking at the figures, one has to wonder what might be hindering women’s political participation? Is it that women are not interested in local and regional politics, or might there be another explanation?

One major barrier resides in political parties, because they dominate potential candidates’ recruitment and nomination processes, serving as a sort of gatekeeper to political posts. And research has shown that parties disproportionally place women in unwinnable positions on the candidate lists, resulting in obvious discrepancies between the number of women in political parties and those in elected positions. 12

To get elected to the local or regional assemblies is one thing, but to get elected to a decision-making position, is another. As one study that focused on women serving in local government in the UK in the 2000s, found that women politicians are more likely to hold so-called “soft committees” in “caring” areas, like social services, social inclusion, housing and health, and less likely to be found in charge of economic development or transportation spheres, or the so-called “power committees”. 13

However, it is not clear whether women’s higher membership in certain committees is the result of individual choices or other influences, such as bias, stereotyping, or the ascription of some areas as typical “women’s spheres”.

The ways in which these committee seats are allocated along gendered lines is an important area for future exploration, because it has significant implications for the debates whether there is or is not the gender gap in representatives’ policy preferences.

“They are neat and know how to tidy up.”

Female politicians also struggle with the way their roles in local and regional politics are perceived and portrayed. When Slovak media’s portrayal of political candidates was analyzed in 2006, researchers found that the media minimized female politicians, focusing more on personal characteristics and physical appearance than on their electoral topics or programs, reproducing the notion that women candidates are incompetent and therefore unsuitable for political office. 14

Another example of gender bias in Slovak media can be seen in their coverage of the 2010 elections, where Magdaléna Vašáryová ran for mayor of Bratislava. 15 In the media she was primarily portrayed as a former actress, rather than a politician although she has had several years of experience in politics.

Female politicians sometimes tend to portray themselves in stereotypical ways occupying the traditional gender roles that are so deeply entrenched in our societies, where women are still seen as primarily responsible for childcare and household management. 16 For instance, according to Věra Palkovská, mayor of the Moravian town, Třinec, and the current winner of the Auspicious Female politician competition, 17 “women bring a softness into harsh political negotiation.” 18

The gender stereotypes have a tremendous impact on the way the media present both female and male politicians. Often local politics is likened to household, where women maintain order and tidiness, drawing an evident parallel between household and city management. It is implied that the way women take care of their families, is the same way women politicians will care for their citizens. This is an obviously conservative notion of women as caring housewives, and in her campaign, Vašáryová played up this notion, appearing on one billboard ironing a man’s white shirt. Milan Ježovica, who served as State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time said: “I support Magdaléna Vašáryová because she is neat, and Bratislava needs to tidy up.” 19

The way Vašáryová’s campaign reproduced traditional male and female roles is not an exception. In 2012, Czech female politicians highlighted the same parallel between caring mothers and a caring regional politicians in their pre-electoral campaigns for regional assemblies. 20

So do female politicians differ from male politicians in terms of their leadership style? The general discourse contends that women are more open and transparent, more willing to compromise and seek consensus, and less likely to take directive approaches than men. However a problem lies within these statements; it resides in the foundational assumption that women constitute a homogenous group, and results in little attention being paid to the differences amongst women.

Local and regional governments’ role in gender equality

When discussing gender equality in local and regional politics, a key concept has become gender mainstreaming, an approach that aims to promote equality among men and women by taking gender perspectives into consideration whenever preparing policy. It concerns any given policy and aims to take into account from the planning stage through to deciding on implementing and evaluating it and its possible effects on the respective situation of men and women. 21

As a UN policy document on gender mainstreaming enumerates, mainstreaming is “a strategy, an approach, a means to achieve the goal of gender equality (…) and it involves, “ensuring that gender perspectives and attention to the goal of gender equality are central to all activities – policy development, research, advocacy/dialogue, legislation, resource allocation, and planning, implementation and monitoring of programs and projects.”  22

To illustrate the principles of gender mainstreaming in practice, let´s look at an example of decision-making regarding a traffic issue, which would generally be seen as gender neutral. One might even wonder what snow removal has to do with gender equality. As the video of the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions says: “Women walk, cycle and use public transport to a greater extent than men who travel more by car. This means that municipality’s snow removal has different consequences for men than it does for women. (…) City officials analyzed local snow removal from a gender perspective and found that the municipality prioritized snow removal for men above snow removal for women. This, of course, was not intentional, they were just doing thing the way they had always been done.”

The case illustrated the importance for municipalities to collect gender-disaggregated data in order to be able to assess the impacts of planned policies on the lives of both men and women. 23

European initiatives

Finally, it is worth noting that over 1,400 municipalities in 29 European countries have signed the European Charter for Equality of Women and Men in Local Life, a strategic document for promoting gender equality at local levels.  24

But when it comes to the V4 countries, the number of signatory municipalities is significantly low – only five municipalities in Slovakia (Košice-Dargovských Hrdinov, Košice-Šaca, Slavkovce, Strážske, Zábiedovo), four in both the Czech Republic (Milotice, Staňkovice, Záluží and Praha 18 – Letňany) and Hungary (Alsózsolca, Magyarmecske, Ormosbánya, Zebegény), and a mere two in Poland (Aleksandrów Kujawski, Nysa).

Nevertheless, these municipalities could serve as models for others, persuading them to consider gender mainstreaming when making policy decisions. Ján Banovčan, mayor of the Slovak municipality, Zábiedovo, summarizes the municipality’s achievements since signing the European Charter in 2007 as follows: “Nowadays women are more active in our municipality’s public life when compared to the situation 10 years ago. We consider the balanced representation of women and men at common community meetings and events. In addition, the share of women in political positions has increased. For instance, in 2007 women made up only 14% of our assembly, but since then their numbers have risen to 43%.” 25

A helpful tool for female politician’s empowerment also lies in women’s networking and the sharing of their experiences. Three V4 cities (Brno, Bratislava and Budapest) are involved in the MILENA women’s network, which aims to create and maintain an international network of relations between female politicians at local and regional levels. 26

Female role models, inclusive parties

Local and regional politics seem to be more accessible to women than national politics, because these levels provide more accessible opportunities for women’s participation and enable the better integration of the potential work, familial and political demands women face. Female politicians at local and regional levels usually work in their place of residence and are not required to travel long distances to fulfil their duties. As a result, their political and private lives can be more easily reconciled.

As Věra Palkovská, mayor of the Moravian town, Třinec, has argued, “the situation for women in Czech politics is complicated because it demands they strike a work-life balance.” 27 Taťána Malá, council member of the Moravian village, Lelekovice, has also said that women have to deal more with reconciling a work-life balance than her male colleagues: “Women have the ability to be successful in politics, but they need more energy than men, and a supportive family background.” 28

Successful female politicians can serve as role models and drive changes in the way politics is perceived as a predominantly male affair. Tüttő agrees: “Unfortunately, politics is still considered a playground for men. That is why we need female role models to show other women that they can do it too.” Moreover, in the long-run, higher numbers of women in local and regional politics could influence women’s share in national politics through creating a pool of experienced female politicians.

Last but not least, political parties, as the gatekeepers, need to be pressured to include more women in local and regional politics, since the key fact remains that female politicians remain underrepresented in key decision-making positions.

 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)visegradrevue.eu

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.

Notes:

  1. Kata Tüttő entered the Hungarian Socialist Party in 1997. A year later, she became a member of the XII. Municipal District Council for Youth, Culture and Sports Committee in Budapest. In 2001, she became a member of the MSP´s Budapest Council. She was a representative of the Municipal Assembly between 2002 and 2014. See: http://bit.ly/2c33rWm (accessed on August 13, 2016); All further quotes taken from the author´s email exchange with Kata Tüttő.
  2. Adriana Krnáčová has served as Prague’s mayor since November 2014, and is the first woman to serve in this position. A businesswoman by background, Krnáčová worked both for an NGO and a private corporation, and then joined the Andrej Babiš´ ANO 2011 Movement, and was elected soon after. http://bit.ly/2bfkWSj (accessed on August 13, 2016).
  3. Jiří Kubík: Krnáčová: Děti mě varovaly, že jdu do Mordoru. Měly pravdu. V politice se vážně nedá věřit nikomu, January 10, 2016, http://bit.ly/2bD64MM (accessed on August 13, 2016).
  4. “Women want their place in politics,” Euronews, September 30, 2013, http://bit.ly/2bsScUH (accessed on August 13, 2016).
  5. Veronika Šprincová, “Men in Charge: V4 politics still a men’s club,” V4Revue, August 2, 2016, http://bit.ly/2bzljHE (accessed on August 13, 2016).
  6. Fórum 50%, Zastoupení žen v komunální politice vzrostlo. O křeslo v Senátu se utká 8 žen, http://bit.ly/2bQ46q0 (accessed on August 13, 2016).
  7. Interview with Tatiana Konrádová: http://bit.ly/2bQ48yj (accessed on August 13, 2016).
  8. This list also includes, Katowice (Krystyna Nesteruk in 1989), Miskolc (Ildikó Asztalos in 1993), Brno (Dagmar Lastovecká in 1994), Gdańsk (Elżbieta Grabarek-Bartoszewicz in 1998), Łódź (Hanna Zdanowska, 2010), Prievidza (Katarína Macháčková in 2010), Prešov (Andrea Turčanová in 2014).
  9. Fórum 50%, Zastoupení žen v komunální politice vzrostlo. O křeslo v Senátu se utká 8 žen, http://bit.ly/2bQ46q0 (accessed on August 13, 2016).
  10. “Women want their place in politics,” Euronews, September 30, 2013, http://bit.ly/2bsScUH (accessed on August 13, 2016).
  11. SITA, Zastúpenie žien v politike je nízke, v súdnictve prevažujú, April 4, 2015, http://bit.ly/2bDS86o (accessed on August 13, 2016).
  12. Veronika Šprincová, “Men in Charge,” V4Revue, http://bit.ly/2bzljHE (accessed on August 13, 2016); P. Norris & J. Lovenduski, Political Recruitment. Gender, Race and Class in the British Parliament, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  13. C. Bochel & H. Bochel, “Women Leaders in Local Government in the UK,” Parliamentary Affairs, 2008, 61(3): 426-441.
  14. Z. Maďarová, “‘Makká zenskost’ – Analýza mediálnej prezentácie politiciek,” in Kradmá ruka feministky rozvažuje za plentou, L. Kobová & Z. Maďarová (Eds.), 2007, Bratislava: ASPEKT, 52-91.
  15. Magdaléna Vášáryová is a Slovak actress and diplomat. She was the Czechoslovakian ambassador to Austria form 1990 to 1993, and Slovakian ambassador to Poland from 2000t o 2005. In the 2006 parliamentary elections, she was elected to the National Council of the Slovak Republic, and in 2010, she ran for mayor of Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava.
  16. Susan Moller Okin, Justice, Gender and the Family, 1989, New York: Basic Books.
  17. The purpose of the Auspicious Female Politician competition, organized by Fórum 50%, is to identify talented Czech female politicians and their work at in local and regional politics. The competition has taken place in three different years thus far (2008, 2013 and 2016).
  18. Interview with Věra Palkovská: http://bit.ly/2bBmOTw (accessed on August 13, 2016).
  19. Z. Maďarová, “Konštrukcia lokálnej politiky ako domova. Analýza kampane kandidátky na primátorku hlavného mesta,” in Politiky a političky. Aspekty politickej subjektivity žien, J. Cviková (Ed.), 2011, Bratislava: ASPEKT, 95-137.
  20. D. Jahodová & M. Čechová, Modelky a pečující matky. Mediální prezentace žen kandidujících do krajských voleb 2012, 2013, Praha: Fórum 50 %.
  21. Council of Europe, “Gender Mainstreaming. Conceptual Framework, Methodology and Presentation of Good Practices. Final Report of Activities of the Group of Specialists on Mainstreaming,” 1998, Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 1-81.
  22. http://bit.ly/1ZmUXHx (accessed on August 13, 2016).
  23. For other examples about how gender perspective is applied to various public services, see: Video gender mainstreaming, http://bit.ly/25Z1oF9 (accessed on August 13, 2016).
  24. European Charter for Equality of Women and Men in Local Life, http://bit.ly/2beou2G (accessed on August 13, 2016); Also see: The European Charter for Equality of Women and Men in Local Life, Council of European Municipalities and Regions, http://bit.ly/2bILgDP (accessed on August 13, 2016). “The Council of European Municipalities and Regions launched in May 2006 a European Charter for Equality of Women and Men in Local Life. This charter is addressed to the local and regional governments of Europe, who are invited to sign it, to make a formal public commitment to the principle of equality of women and men, and to implement, within their territory, the commitments set out within the Charter.” http://bit.ly/2bYQImd (accessed on August 13, 2016).
  25. All further quotes taken from the author´s email exchange with Ján Banovčan.
  26. A. Křížková & L Václavíková-Helšusová, “Women’s Participation and Representation in Local Politics,” in Women’s Civic and Political Participation in the Czech Republic and the Role of European Union Gender Equality and Accession Policies, H. Hašková, A. Krížková (Eds.), Prague: Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences, 2003, pp. 26-30.
  27. Interview with Věra Palkovská: http://bit.ly/2bE4ziz (accessed on August 13, 2016).
  28. Interview with Taťána Malá: http://bit.ly/2bcoE0f (accessed on August 13, 2016).
Markéta Mottlová

Markéta Mottlová

has been working as project coordinator and lecturer in Fórum 50 % that strives for a more balanced representation of women and men in politics and decision-making. In the NGO she is for example in charge of a political mentoring programme between Czech, Danish and Norwegian female politicians. During her studies she has been focusing on different theories of political representation and women's political participation.