Women in European Politics

Gustav Klimt: Hope II // Public domain

Although there is some evidence of a gradual improvement in the participation of women in decision-making positions, women are still vastly underrepresented in policy-making and in other executive roles all over the world. Currently only 10 countries have a female Head of State, and 13 countries have a female Head of Government. 119 countries have never had a female leader.1

According to the prognosis of UN Women, at the current rate, gender parity in the highest positions of power will not be reached for another 130 years.2 There are still strong cultural biases and structural barriers, such as unequal access to education or inadequate childcare services, which discourage women from being able to reach leadership positions.

Moreover, even if at the European level political institutions are on their way for reaching gender parity, as this interactive map shows, there are still large regional gaps in female representation in Europe.

While currently 41% of Members of European Parliament (MEP) are women and the Von der Leyen Commission was the first ever to appoint equal number of female and male Commissioners3, the data show that women still continue to be outnumbered in national parliaments, national governments, and local assemblies in some regions, such as in Central-Eastern Europe.4

For instance, in Hungary the number of women holding a seat in the national parliament is outstandingly low even in a global comparison, as the country currently ranks as the 156th out of 189 countries in gender parity in the world.

Czechia, similarly, still has much to do to empower Czech women to take upon policy-making positions, as this country ranks the fourth worst in Europe and 88th globally on gender equality in national politics.56

As a comparison, Sweden, with 47% of seats held by women in national parliament, has the highest gender parity in Europe and along with the other Scandinavian countries is among the best performing countries in gender empowerment all over the world.

On the occasion of the International Women’s Day, I asked four MEPs from Central-Eastern Europe what they think where we stand now on the issue of female political leadership in Europe. I was interested in what they consider the biggest obstacles for women pursuing a career in politics, and what their own personal experience has been in national and European politics.

From left to right: HU: Klára Dobrev EP Vice-President, Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats: Demokratikus Koalíció / HU: Anna Donáth MEP, Renew Europe: Momentum and CZ: Markéta Gregorová, MEP, Greens/European Free Alliance: Piráti / CZ: Radka Maxová, MEP, Renew Europe
From left to right: HU: Klára Dobrev EP Vice-President, Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats: Demokratikus Koalíció / HU: Anna Donáth MEP, Renew Europe: Momentum and CZ: Markéta Gregorová, MEP, Greens/European Free Alliance: Piráti / CZ: Radka Maxová, MEP, Renew Europe

First of all, Ms Dobrev and Ms Maxová, could you please tell us why you decided to pursue a career in politics?

Klára Dobrev (KD): I was already interested in public affairs in secondary school. This is why I decided to simultaneously study Economics and Law. I wanted to understand how a country and its society function. After university, most of my course mates got jobs in the private sector, mainly in Western companies, but I wanted to work in public administration, and I worked for the Ministry of Finance in the nineties. I always envisaged myself as a civil servant and I thought I would become a policy-maker. But then life changed my plans and brought me new challenges.

When in 2004 my husband, Ferenc Gyurcsány, was elected Prime Minister of Hungary, I stepped down from my position as Vice-President of the Office of National Development and EU Grants. But I always remained interested and active in policy-making. I started a consultancy company that focused on policies and development plans in public affairs for several European countries.

The day after the Hungarian parliamentary elections of 2018 I saw a lot of disappointed people without any hope for a possible change. So I said that if we don’t stand up for ourselves now and if we don’t start fighting for the end of the Orbán-regime, then we would not be able to ever face ourselves in the mirror or look our children in the eyes. We have to act now or never.

So it was obvious for me that I had to run for the European elections of 2019, and I started a tour in the country to listen to the people who felt left behind. In my entire life I was always interested and involved in European affairs, so running for the European Parliament suited me well.

Radka Maxová (RM): At one point in my life, I realized that I do not like the direction of politics in my country. I have two children and I wanted them to grow up in an attractive and liveable country, and I wanted them to have the desire to continue living in the Czech Republic. So I could no longer “swear at home”, I had to actively take my part in politics.

That is why I ran for office at the national parliament in 2013 and I wanted to focus on social policies in my country. I really wanted to change the state of the country’s policies and I wanted to take part in creating fairer social policies. I hoped to help people with disabilities and people who face the risk of discrimination because of different reasons and I aimed to encourage more women to join politics.

Ms Donáth and Ms Gregorová, you both got involved in politics already in your twenties. What motivated you to pursue a career in politics at such a young age?

Anna Donáth (AD): My story might not be a typical one because I actually never thought I would end up where I am now. Though I come from a family that has been politically active for many generations, I did not want to be directly involved in politics, I just wanted to be engaged in society. I always tried to avoid any political activism at university. My involvement in politics came unplanned.

One of my childhood friends co-started this new party called Momentum, and I somehow got into the flow with them. In the beginning, it was just a community for progressive and inspiring young people to discuss questions about societal issues, but later it became more serious. Then everything happened quickly, and in 2017 I was elected the Vice-President of the party.

I always did things because of a certain pressure from the community, not because of personal ambitions. I used to be afraid of challenging my comfort zone. I used to look for excuses whenever I was asked to take on more challenging positions, because I believed I was not good enough to do these things. But I could never stand injustice against others and I wanted to help people, which eventually inspired me to start participating in politics.

Women, and especially young women, are generally afraid of standing up for such positions, they do not trust themselves to be able to manage such roles, and we often need extra external encouragement. I believe this is partly because of a general socialisation as a woman. Men are more likely to jump into unknown situations. When I realised this, it inspired me to pursue a role in politics and to empower other women as well to follow my example.

Markéta Gregorová (MG): The trick is that I don’t consider this to be a career choice. I am an activist, and the Piráti used to be a small, nerdish, activist, bottom-up party until its huge success in 2017. So in the beginning I was just trying to improve the world with whatever I could do in my spare time. If Piráti had not existed during those times, knowing myself, I would have probably joined some NGO. I still feel more like an activist than a professional politician.

Politics, in my view, is a public service, not something that you should pursue as a career. By that I mean the offices of politicians, not their political advisors, of course. Politicians should be the representatives of people. How can you represent a community if you have never been a real part of it? I am also trying to make an example through my active political participation that politics and political representation should be inclusive and should be accessible for everyone, if we want to achieve real democracy.

Do you face any extra challenges in politics as a woman?

MG: You know, my answer to that question used to be “I simply try to be the most informed and most-prepared person in the room”, so that people would take me seriously, and I used to say that these “issues” like being young or being a woman do not impact my work. But I have finally started to learn that this is just simply not true or correct.

I can be the most informed person in the room if I want to be, but I should not do it just to be listened to the same way as everyone else is. Women should not try three times harder to get where men stand already. One of my colleagues once said: “Equality will be reached when we have similar amount of bad women in politics, as bad male politicians.” And to be honest, yes, I want excellent people everywhere, of course. But why do we check the qualities and competencies only in women, then?

AD: These extra challenges exit, even if we try to pretend they do not anymore. As a young woman, I often have to be smarter than my male colleagues just to get the same recognition. Of course, it was especially hard in the beginning of my career, at the bottom of the hierarchy, when Momentum was an unknown party. I often used to get such comments, like “Finally there is a beautiful woman among us.”, or “Not just beautiful, but also smart.”

Funnily, the credibility of female politicians is often connected with the fact whether they are married or have children, and their credibility does not necessarily depend on their age. Just because I am married now, people take my opinion more seriously in certain questions. This is nonsense. For instance, many people do not accept female politicians’ opinion on education, if they do not have children already. Online commenters often use diminutives for female politicians to emphasise their lower status, which they do not do for male politicians.

RM: I cannot say that there are any extra challenges. However, a big challenge for women in politics is to find a work-life balance. Politics is a time consuming job, if you want to do it well and you truly want to help people. You often don’t have free weekends, and you often have committee meetings until late in the evening. This is why it is essential to have a great support from your loved ones, who will help you to take care of your family, and who will support you when needed.

It also depends on the development of services in the country for reconciling family and work, such as the availability of pre-school care facilities, or extra-curricular services for children. That is where I see the biggest challenge. These facilities must be available and affordable especially for those who cannot rely on the support of their partners or other relatives.

To KD: How hard was it for you to go beyond the role of the former First Lady, the wife of Ferenc Gyurcsány and to show people that you stand your place in politics on your own?

KD: I am happy to be the wife of Ferenc Gyurcsány, and I believe he is happy to be the husband of Klára Dobrev. Of course, over the years the roles in our marriage, in the family and in our careers have changed a lot, such as what tasks we have and how much time we can devote to these things. Apart from some natural smaller disputes in the family, we could overcome the challenges together, and we could always agree on who takes the kids home or who cooks the dinner. That has supported me a lot in my career.

I had some doubts in the beginning regarding my public image, which is why I hesitated to take leading political roles before the European Elections of 2019, even if I had been asked several times to run for positions. But then I realised that if you have a strong opinion, and you are not afraid to articulate it and to show publicly that you believe in it in the public, then Hungarian voters can separate my family background from my political role. Even if Fidesz tries really hard to push an image of me as the wife of Gyurcsány.

Do you see any differences in the treatment of female political actors in your country and at the European level?

RM: It must be said that both European and Czech national politics continue to be dominated by men. Nevertheless, what I find especially important at the European level is the European Parliament’s position to tackle discrimination against different groups and to promote equal rights for all, including encouraging greater participation of women in politics and equal pay for equal work. I never thought that this “fight”, a word that I don’t really like, would continue even in the twenty-first century.

In the European Parliament, I see great energy from women and men to change the world, while in the Czech Republic, on the contrary, I see that long-standing advocates for equal opportunities for women are abandoning their “fight”, as they are exhausted from repeating the same things over and over again, with little actual changes achieved. We could even say that the generation that started this “fight” suffers from a burnout today.

However, history shows that if women had not fought for their voting rights and for their jobs, then we would have nothing now. We just have to encourage the next young generation to get involved. Gender should not become a swearword.

MG: Well, compared to my country, the European Parliament almost seems like a real women’s domain. The extremely low representation of women is pitiful in Czechia. The overall multinational and multicultural environment at European level inherently leads to greater openness and acceptance, so I see a big difference there, though I believe it derives from the nature of the institutions.

KD: Yes, there are great differences. In European politics it does not matter anymore whether you are a man or a woman. It is like if someone asked if you had brown or blonde hair. Of course, this was achieved thanks to the gender quotas and gender balance policies over several years. For instance, in one of the elections in my EP fraction we knew we had to choose a man, because there were already too many women in the leadership positions of the fraction.

We have to pay attention to gender parity in both directions. Gender balance works in many countries on national level, but in Hungary, this is not the case. There are several reasons for this, for example the historical development of the country, which has encouraged a generally more conservative family model in the society.

But it is also largely because of the policies and communication of the Fidesz government, whose opinion about the place of women in the society is not something I can agree with. They communicate an image, where women should be at home, should take care of their children and feed their husbands. They claim that politics is hard work and is only for men. The video of the Prime Minister for Women’s Day from 2019 is a perfect example of this.7 They create a patronising atmosphere for women that has an influence on the society.

However, I meet a lot of people in Hungary, men and women, who do want to see more female politicians, because they see good role models in their families and close environment. They see many talented women every day in positions like doctors, judges or school principals. However, in politics, the number of women is dramatically low in Hungary. In my opinion, we Hungarians often think that we are more conservative and traditionalist than we are in reality.

I believe that people in Hungary could be even ready for a female Prime Minister. Most countries around Hungary have already had a female country leader, and I am sure the time has come for Hungary also to accept a women in such a position.

AD: There are of course differences in the political culture. For example, at the EP, my colleagues organised right at the beginning of our mandate a get-together breakfast meeting only for the female Renew MEPs and Commissioners. We also have a WhatsApp group where we support each other, it is like an empowerment group. One of my colleagues recently gave birth to her baby, and my colleagues and I take turns to look after her baby. It is completely accepted to be exhausted at work, when you have children.

However, there are still things to improve, even at the EP. For example, in the beginning the security guards always wanted to see my ID at the entrance of the plenary room, while they did not stop my male colleagues. I had the feeling that they thought that as a young woman I could not be an MEP, they must have believed that I was an intern or someone’s assistant. Also, at the first meeting with David Sassolini, EP President, Mr Sassolini interrupted me several times while I was speaking, but he did not behave the same way with my male colleagues.

Of course, the situation is much worse in Hungary, because of this macho culture, where you can only stand your ground with strong and decisive masculine behaviour. However, when women behave the same, they are automatically labelled as militant or hysterical. Of course, women don’t have to act like men, but at the moment women have a limited set of methods and behavioural role models to follow, unlike men with their centuries long socialisation in such situations.

What are, in your perception, the biggest barriers in your country that discourage women from pursuing a career in politics or in other leadership positions?

MG: Luckily, thanks to the work of excellent organizations, such as Forum50% (a Czech NGO focused on equal participation of women and men in politics and decision making), we already have studies revealing the possible reasons for the underrepresentation of women.

As with everything, it is a combination of many factors, but I want to mention one problematic loop: you cannot be something what you cannot see. One former Czech minister once said that when she was younger and first saw the work of a female minister, that was the first time she ever thought of herself as being able to get that position too. Until you have role models, until you see someone doing that job, it is hard to imagine that you could do the same.

Only women and minority groups are put through this extra challenge. If you combine this with all the structural and societal barriers, you will never be able to see what you could be, what you could achieve. I actually came to politics to bring world peace to everyone, as I cheekily claim. Therefore, my focus in policies is not specifically women’s rights.

However, seeing the poor situation with female representation in Czech politics, I decided to launch a campaign there in April to inform the society about the gaps in gender equality and to promote potential measures to improve them.

AD: In my opinion, there are external and internal barriers at the same time that enhance the underrepresentation of women. These come from socialisation, education and the general societal mentality, even if the situation has been improving over generations. I would like to tell you an anecdote about another Momentum member, a young lady from Orosháza (small town in Southern Hungary). She told me that when she was at primary school, she was really good at maths.

But when they had to decide which gymnasium they should apply to, her teacher told her to become a teacher, while she told another male classmate of hers with similarly good grades to pursue technical studies. This story highlights how it is societally and structurally taught to us women that we should have lower ambitions than men. This is also largely because of the gender models that we see throughout our lives.

A large part of our inner anxieties, insecurities or lack of self-confidence as a woman comes from this. These can only be overcome if we consciously go against them. Even for me, it is still a constant task every day, to consciously break out from this inner barrier as a woman, and I try to be braver. This is why, with Momentum, we would start career advice services for girls and young women in schools, and why, both on Instagram and at the Momentum’s Tizenx group meetings for youngsters, I try to support young women with their plans. There are also external barriers, such as the societal expectations.

A woman has to be beautiful, decisive, but at the same time not bossy. Society expects so many things from women that are impossible to achieve at the same time. Lastly, the current political environmental in Hungary promotes a conservative image of women. This is very harmful, because only a few people stand up against it, and there are already too few role models for women. This conservative image of women often encourages people to find self-justification for their behaviour, and this then leads to the everyday repression of women, such as domestic violence.

However, I believe it is not just a problem in Hungary, but a global one. Of course, there are societies or cultures where the role of women is more developed in terms of equal rights or social recognition. But this does not mean that women are truly equal in these societies. In many cases, it is often not a real structural change, but remains a surface-level development.

RM: In the Czech Republic, the word politician itself is almost vulgar one, and being a politician is possibly one of the worst valued professions, not in terms of remuneration, but in societal perception. I think when it comes to politics there is still this general idea that it is a dirty job.

Of course, in reality this is not the case; however, there are still politicians who do not behave the way they should, especially considering their public position. Politicians should show an example to people. One of the main obstacles for female politicians is the challenging combination of work and family life. I consider working in politics a time-consuming profession with a lot of stress, intensive publicity and the media invading your private life.

Moreover, it happens time to time, especially to female politicians, that they receive rude comments on social networks that might be discouraging for them.

KD: One of the big problems is that it is still not commonly accepted in Hungary that women and men should share the same responsibilities in the household or with the upbringing of their children, while it is already a common practice in many other countries. Women are still more likely to be expected to stay at home with a sick child.

Another common burden on women’s shoulders is taking care of their parents or other elderly relatives. In Hungary there is a lack of childcare facilities and the social support for the elderly is also disappointing. These do not just discourage women with small children from harnessing their abilities at work, but also women in their, who could potentially fully re-enter the job market. Women are disproportionately burdened with these tasks in Hungary.

The state does not offer enough support and the civil organisations are not developed enough to be able to offer help.

Recently there have been more women appointed to positions in the Hungarian government. In your opinion, does this help form a positive image of political representation of women in Hungary?

AD: Putting aside my political opinion on the work of the current government, I believe that the nomination of Judit Varga for the position of Minister of Justice was a very important step. She is a talented woman.

However, Fidesz was quite late with this, as in their previous two governments there were no women. The nomination of the other female actors, however, was more a step more back than step ahead in terms of encouraging female empowerment in political representation. This was a message towards the West to counterbalance any critique on gender issues in Hungary.

Many important issues do not have a ministry in Hungary, but typically a women was appointed for to lead the Ministry for Family Affairs. This is a very conservative view that female politicians can only deal with such issues.

The appointment of Zsófia Rácz as the Deputy Minister of State for Youth and Equal Opportunity also just harmed the equal treatment of women, because it suggests that women can only get in such positons in non-legal ways. (To be able to appoint her, the regulations had to be amended, as she did not have a university degree when entering office.)

Though we need more women in leading positions to show role models for the society. For me, Magda Kósáné Kovács was one of the inspiring figures. She once told me that the only “good way” of pursuing your dreams is when you stay true to yourself. I truly believe that Hungarians are ready for more female politicians and they are ready for a change, as the European elections showed.

I got a huge responsibility with Katka (Katalin Cseh) when we won the European elections. In the beginning it was scary, because we knew we have to show a good example and we have to show people that there is a chance for change. However, a typical image of a country leader in Hungary is still somebody with many years of experience and wisdom, so the prejudice against women, especially young women remains too strong for getting elected for the position of the Prime Minister.

KD: These women were “selected” to the government, and it seems they are not autonomous political actors, whose actual legitimacy and work within the party helped them to get these positions. However, there are many female oppositional politicians in Hungary, who worked hard to get to leading political positions such as Ágnes Kunhalmi, Bernadett Szél or Ágnes Vadai and many others.

Despite this, I am always happy to see more women in Hungarian politics, even if I do not agree at all with those women in the government in terms of political views. In my opinion, it was shameful that there were no female ministers in the previous Hungarian governments for so many years. It should be finally understood that just like half of the population in the world are women, women should be proportionately represented in politics too.

Women are not smarter or more beautiful than men. They are just as smart and beautiful as men.

To MG: After a recent EP voting session you stated that you do not find gender quotas in elected bodies the most suitable form for promoting higher participation of women. In what other ways could the European Union or the Czech government encourage women to take leadership positions?

MG: What is important is to create an inclusive environment. For instance, I will be launching a campaign to show that politics should be for everyone. Also within my party, we try to lead by example. We have a working group for equal opportunities, which will be conducting a gender audit and we have real direct democracy, where all members can vote on all issues.

We are generally less hierarchic than other parties, which makes it easier for everyone to participate equally. We create an open and tolerant environment, and we try to support parents with kids to join the meetings. We try to offer the option for online work as often as possible, even before the pandemic, and we stand up for women’s and minorities’ rights in our policies.

The party’s position on gender quotas is actually under discussion. We have a dilemma between liberal and progressive approach. We do not want to push things with regulations, yet data are pointing towards the need of some kind of quota system to destroy the loop, that I mentioned earlier discouraging women to pursue higher positions. So, I am still holding the party’s position, but I do participate in these talks actively.

And last but not least: What would you advise to women who are thinking of starting a career in politics?

KD: My message is mainly for those women who have already achieved something in their career. Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of the United States said the following lines at a conference in Hungary “There is a specific place in hell that is devoted for those women who have already succeeded in their lives, but do not devote their energies to help other women.”

Until we reach the same gender blindness that we already have at the European Parliament, for as long as we feel that as a woman, we have to do more than men to be recognised, we women have to support each other. Be brave to challenge yourself! In my opinion, the majority of those political activists who work at the bottom of the political hierarchy and directly help people and directly spread the political messages to the society, are women.

However, the higher we step up the hierarchy, the fewer women we see there. They lose their enthusiasm, not because nobody would elect them, but because they do not dare to go for such roles. This is why I try to push women to take such positions in my party. We need more role models and let’s help each other.

RM: I would very much like to see more women in politics and, in particular, younger women. I will be honest, politics is not simple. It is important to be patient, learn the negotiation techniques and to be convinced that you want to do it, as well as which policy areas you want to focus on.

It is also important to accept the time-consuming career of a politician and the lack of privacy connected with the job. Then, once you start, endure, because we need more women in politics!

MG: My first advice is not to take politics as a career. That is where the old men in suits, as I like to generalize them, screwed up, with all due respect to all the great old men in suits, of course. This is what needs to be changed.

Once you feel like you are ready to serve this public service, do not let anyone to dissuade you from it. Create a safety network of supportive friends and colleagues, who will keep you on the path and ignore those who purposely try to put you down. Find a party that represents your opinions, get involved, be proactive, show where you stand. I have recently seen a wonderful musical called Hamilton, about one of the founding fathers of America.

There is one character in the musical called Burr, who wants nothing more than to be in the so called “room where it happens”, where politics happens. Not because he wants to change something in the world, but just because he wants to be involved in power.

Well, he advises Hamilton to “talk less, smile more and don’t let them know what you are against or what you’re for.” You know what happens? Hamilton does not follow his advice, and he outshines him, because he truly believes in a free America, and he does everything to fulfil that dream. He was very outspoken and thus more hated – but he eventually got to the “room where it happens”, and he actually achieved something in that room. And I think that should be our driving force.

AD: I would like to offer this advice to young women: don’t be afraid of your ambitious dreams, and look for your own inspiring role models, whose opinion is important for you. Don’t be afraid to reach out to these people or to ask for support.

We all need role models to learn from. We might see on the TV and in TV series that people in important positions are all strong men, but do not be afraid to go against this and to stand up for yourself. My last advice is that there are no bad decisions, so don’t be afraid to make mistakes and to go for what you believe in.

I would like to thank all the interviewees for giving me the opportunity to talk to them. I wish all of them the best of luck and success in their future endeavours.

2 UN Women: Facts and figures (2020): Women’s leadership and political participation https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/leadership-and-political-participation/facts-and-figures

4 Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women (2020). Women in politics 2020 map.

5 UN Women: Facts and figures: Women’s leadership and political participation.

6 Eurostat: Seats held by women in national parliaments and governments, https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-datasets/-/sdg_05_50

Magdolna Molnar
Republikon Institute