As I make my way into the office on 8 March, I know the people selling flowers at the Warsaw Metro station in front of our building will be having one of the busiest days of their year: although some people may see it as a kitschy legacy of communism, International Women’s Day is still big in Poland.
Of course, there are parts of Central and Eastern Europe where it’s much bigger, and always has been. As one of my (male) colleagues says of his time in Moscow: “If I forgot to buy flowers for my female co-workers for 8 March, my life wouldn’t have been worth living; I might as well just not show up for the rest of the year.” While in other countries, the day passes by without much fuss at all.
Before the fall of communism, observances of 8 March were part of a broader trend of promoting female participation in the workforce. Remember those stereotypical images of women driving tractors, or happily toiling away on factory floors? While the reality of course never reached the lofty ideals portrayed in propaganda, the fundamental acceptance of a role for women in the workforce has remained a part of our region’s business climate.
It’s always hard to generalize about all 29 societies that CEE covers, but it’s certainly fair to say that women here have some distinct advantages in pursuing their careers. While women are often expected to have primary responsibility for childcare, they can rely on reasonably good creches and pre-schools, and perhaps more importantly on close family networks, with grandparents who help shoulder some of the responsibility. My Russian colleagues tell me this is a key factor in how their families operate, and I see it to varying degrees around the region.
Historically, women in this part of the world, particularly Russia, have been well represented in fields such as accounting (seen in some Western countries as a “gentlemen’s profession”), consultancy and banking (look no further than Elvira Nabiullina, governor of the Central Bank of Russia). That led to some remarkable findings in PwC’s Winning the fight for female talent report on inclusive recruitment. Women in Russia are 13% less likely to say they feel employers are too male biased when attracting talent than their female peers globally (17% and 30% respectively). And 28% of Russian woman believe a gender-based pay gap exists in their country, the third-lowest figure (after Malaysia and Vietnam) compared to 50% of women globally.
Those differences in history, attitudes and support structures mean women in our region have different priorities from our counterparts elsewhere. While the top three traits women look for in an employer are the same, the order of priority is different. In CEE, women are much more focused on opportunities for career progression, which they rank first, than on a culture of work-life balance, which comes in third. Globally, work-life balance is the top concern.
This set of priorities points to a fundamental shift that is taking place in the way companies interact with female staff: the focus is moving away from recruitment (where, roughly speaking, we have just about reached equality), to retention. We know how to get women in the door of the building, but the trick now is to ensure that they make it through the door of the boardroom. Lip service isn’t enough: one legacy of communism that holds true in all 29 countries is a well-developed scepticism toward empty slogans. People here have a nose for identifying propaganda. To keep women in your company, you have to create genuine opportunities for advancement.
The good news is that if Central and Eastern European companies can succeed at keeping women engaged in the workforce, it may offer a solution to our region’s demographic woes, which include falling birth rates and declining university enrolment. For that to happen, one of the things societies need to do is find ways to get women back into the workforce after maternity leave, which can be quite generous in this part of the world. That will probably include some form of incentives not to take the maximum benefits that are allowed; it should also include more generous paternity leave to help families distribute the responsibilities of childcare more evenly.
That in turn may offer some lessons for other regions, as keeping women in the workforce is becoming increasingly important not just in Central Europe but around the globe. In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution set off a sea change in the relationship between gender and labour, as machinery began reducing the relative importance of physical strength. Today, as machines continue to take over both physical tasks and, increasingly, intellectual ones such as analysis, the relative importance of skill sets traditionally seen as female, such as creativity, intuition and empathy, is set to soar. Companies need to start thinking now about how they’re going to win the competition to keep those workers on board.
International Women’s Day is a big day for the flower sellers outside my office. It also needs to be a big day for managers to reflect on the concrete steps they’re taking to retain, engage and promote their female employees. Over the next few years, the war for talent that business leaders rank as one of their top concerns will increasingly be a war for female talent. And that’s something managers will need to focus on all year round.
 PwC Central and Eastern Europe operates across 29 territories in the region: Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan