Leader talks: Gender expert Lenka Simerská on why the Czech Republic is still failing women

On International Women's Day we spoke to head of the Czech Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs’ 22% EQUALITY project.

Dinah Richter Spritzer

Written by Dinah Richter Spritzer Published on 08.03.2021 15:10:00 (updated on 21.10.2022) Reading time: 7 minutes

Lenka Simerská is head of the Czech Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs’ Project 22% EQUALITY, which aims to eliminate the gender pay gap. She spoke with Dinah Richter Spritzer about the Czech Republic's long-standing struggle to narrow the gap, which is among the worst in the European Union. In 2019 the Czech Republic ranked 21st of 28 countries in the EU in gender inequality and declined to 23rd in 2020.

Why are men in the Czech Republic paid 20 percent more than women in terms of gross hourly earnings? 

Before I answer, you should know that the numbers just changed. We had the third highest gender pay gap  in the E.U., but now we’re fifth. But nothing really changed in terms of the bigger problem. The government raised the level of pay for teachers, for social workers and for health care workers to keep up with the private sector. These professions are mostly occupied by women. So this raised women’s pay in general.

So this isn’t indicative of a change in the society or a change in how private companies are behaving?

Exactly. The Czech gender pay gap still has the same dynamic. Parents still make the same economic decisions in terms of who stays home, who takes care of the children, whose career and ambitions must be sacrificed.

Simerská heads the Czech Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs’ Project 22% (in Czech 22 % K ROVNOSTI).
Simerská heads the Czech Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs’ Project 22% (in Czech 22 % K ROVNOSTI).

The vast majority of Czech mothers take maternity leave of three to four years. Some economists say this long leave is the main cause of the pay gap. Are they right?

Yes. Of course there are many reasons, but basically the gender pay gap is caused by how the Czech society is organized around child care. Women stay home too long. They have the option to go back to work sooner than three years. But not everyone does it.

But women have a choice; no one is forcing them to take the full maternity leave?

Most women do feel in some way forced to stay at home by society because otherwise you are not considered to be a good mother if you are letting your kids be taken care of somewhere else, by someone else.

How entrenched are traditional gender roles when it comes to childcare?

The father perhaps would be willing and able to take care of the children when they are small. But even on the side of the employer, the father is very unsure how his career will develop based on the fact that he asked to go half time or part time, or even took some of the month off.

If people think babysitting or childcare before age three is a stigma, then why would they use it even if it is available?

Well, from the data and also from the qualitative analysis that we do, it's clear that if there are childcare options, then people will use them. Right now we are short about 20,000 places. Definitely, the Czech society is stereotypical and traditional in some ways, but the wage levels are not so high so that people could easily afford low income levels for the whole family. So there are women who would go back to work much, much sooner if it was normal and care was available. 

So you’re saying, for instance, in a South Moravian village, if there was a system whereby parents could send their kids to a quality childcare place a year after birth, this would actually happen?

Yes, but that does not mean eight hours a day. The key is having options so that a mother can choose based on what she wants for her career. The idea is, whatever she started doing before motherhood, she will continue with it if she wants to.

So besides the childcare issue, what else is behind the pay disparity?

A lack of women leadership in companies. The higher your position is, the higher pay. Women often lose the years when they are not active at work, due to long maternity leave. Then when they come back they don't have the ambition anymore. Or if they do have that ambition, it’s hard for them to compete with male colleagues who were not out of the company for that prolonged period. (Editor’s note: women accounted for 16.9 percent of Czech company boards in 2020, compared to the EU average of 25.8 percent.)

How is COVID-19 affecting the pay gap?

Before Covid there was a labor shortage. And in that situation, it was much easier to talk about why a company should make itself more attractive for women. But now with the crisis, we will see unemployment rising. I don't want to be pessimistic, but I think history shows us that women are the first who will go. 

Is there a long term solution to the wage disparity?

I think the solution is transparency. Some people tend to think that transparency is that if I want to know how much you earn, I am entitled to know, but that's not correct. Transparency is a set of rules and tools for everyone to know what the pay range is for specific roles.

And how common is such transparency in the Czech Republic? 

It doesn't happen at all. When I'm talking to HR consultation companies and businesses, I see it's not even a habit for them to have a wage structure described and wage rules. But in some European Union countries, companies are legally required to report their wage disparities. 

Give me an example. 

Great Britain, Germany, Iceland. And the case of Britain is very interesting because in 2018 they started this public database of companies that shows their gender pay gap and gender benefit gap. And even after the first year with the beta version, companies started to realize that if they don't want to be publicly shamed, they had to take action to change the numbers. I also think that part of this reporting should be not only to blame and shame, but the state should provide a helping hand for the companies. The government can say, you haven't been thinking about this yet, but here are some things you can do to narrow the gap. 

So what are some of those things that you are offering?

For example, we also have a tool that calculates how much it would cost a company to equalize wages. It's called regression analysis. And companies realize that in the end, it’s not that costly to fix the problem. 

Today most of the media discussion centers around unconscious or covert discrimination. Does more overt discrimination still go on?

Of course, nobody will tell you that openly. But there are still cases where a boss will openly treat a woman differently and excuse it by saying, “You have a child. I mean, you will stay at home when the child is sick, blah, blah, blah.” We know the direct discrimination is happening also because of the data: the overall pay gap for the same position for the same work at the same employer is 10 percent throughout the country.

That's some guy thinking I can pay a woman less?

No, it doesn't have to be a guy. It can be a woman. It can be biased thinking. For example, she might think: “We have too many women here. We need a man to keep working here so we need to pay him a bit more because he’s the breadwinner of the family.”

So to counter this, would you introduce mandatory wage gap reporting?

We want to have a mechanism that would be somehow similar to Switzerland. In Switzerland, when you are applying for state money in terms of public procurement, you have to submit a certificate that shows that your company doesn't have more than a five-percent gender pay gap. Right now we offer a wage gap measurement tool from Switzerland. It’s voluntary, it’s free and companies really like it. 

Compared to 20 years ago, how far do you think the country has come in terms of the general attitude towards gender equality?

I will be very skeptical and because I started doing this work in 1996 when I was a student I don't have good news. It hasn't really moved anywhere in a positive way. On the other hand, the public discourse is now on a higher level than it used to be. And obviously some of the employers started to see the issue as their PR thing of being a good employer, and of corporate social responsibility. But I would like to see more women in the public arena, more women talking on the TV about the crisis plan for COVID, more women as political leaders, and more women on company boards. Everything starts with having more women in leadership positions. 

Today the Czech government is expected to discuss a gender equality strategy, to be implemented by 2030. Read more about Project 22% Equality here, see English information about the equal pay calculator here, and use the equal pay calculator (in Czech) here.

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