Polish women have long been placed on a pedestal — hand kissing only went out of fashion in the last decade — but that does not translate into senior positions in politics and business.
That’s why the Polish parliament is considering a bill that would mandate that either half or a third of places on electoral lists be reserved for women. But the move has aroused enormous controversy — even within the ruling centrist Civic Platform party — and it looks unlikely to become law before local elections at the end of this year.
“Parity is not a priority,” quipped Waldy Dzikowski, a senior party member.
Women have about a fifth of the seats in the lower house of the Polish parliament and less than 10 percent of the places in the Senate, lower than in many western European countries. There is pressure to change that, as Donald Tusk, the prime minister, has recognized.
“My dream is for half of the first places on Civic Platform’s electoral lists to be for women and half for men,” Tusk said recently.
In a small sign of change, Agnieszka Pomaska recently defeated Jaroslaw Walesa, the son of Poland’s legendary Solidarity labor union leader and Nobel laureate, for the post of Civic Platform party chief in the north of the country.
Even Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the traditionalist leader of the right-wing Law and Justice opposition party, has tried to make more places for women in his party. In a campaign aimed at softening the party’s often abrasive image, Kaczynski last year launched the “angels” campaign, with three senior women featured prominently in the party’s advertising. Nothing much came of that attempt, but Grazyna Gesicka, a woman, remains the head of the party’s parliamentary wing.
But in this traditionally Roman Catholic country, advancing women is proving to be a tough slog. Michal Stuligrosz, a member of Civic Platform, has said that the “natural role of a woman is to care for the warm family hearth, and the man to be earning for the family.”
There are also questions about how any law mandating equality on electoral lists would actually work, and if it would have any impact on increasing the representation of women in parliament. Unlike in the United States, Poles choose from regional lists of candidates put together by party barons, with only one or two names on a list of 20 or more candidates actually making it into parliament.
Voters are often unfamiliar with the names of the people running, so those placed in the top couple of spots on the list tend to win, because voters usually check off the first names they see of the party they want to support. Even if a third or half of places on the list were reserved for women, it would have little impact if the women were located far down the roll, a decision made by party bosses.
There is also a dearth of women in the most senior posts of government. Tusk’s cabinet does have women, but the most powerful roles, such as finance, economy and defense, are all held by men. There are also no women candidates running for president in this autumn’s elections.
The woman to try most recently for the country’s top job was Henryka Bochniarz, the head of Lewiatan, the Polish employers federation, who ran in 2005 and gained an embarrassing 1.26 percent.
Bochniarz is now on the board of Boeing International, where she was the first woman to hold a post of that seniority. She says that the situation for women in business is even more difficult than in politics.
In a survey of the country’s top companies last year, the Rzeczpospolita newspaper found only 16 women and 257 men on the boards of the 60 largest companies listed on the Warsaw Stock Exchange.
The situation has improved slightly since then, following the naming of Alicja Kornasiewicz as the new CEO of Bank Pekao, Poland’s second-largest bank; she is the only female CEO of a large listed Polish company.
As well as a more traditional attitude toward a woman’s proper place, Polish women also have trouble getting ahead because the daycare system is much less developed than in western Europe, where it is much easier for women to arrange for childcare and continue their business and political careers.
“Woman have a hard time in the corporate world, and when they do reach powerful positions, they have to work twice as hard to stay there,” said Andrew Atter, an executive coach.