Like all other factors of social life in the region, twenty-eight years after the fall of the Iron Curtain the media landscape in Central Europe remains strongly influenced by its communist past. Media content has become Westernised in the sense that it is more consumption-oriented, which entails objectifying and sexualising bodies – female in particular – in order to sell products.
However, the inside of the media industry tells a different gender story. Although comprehensive studies focusing on gender in Central European media are scarce, some general reports – such as that by the International Women’s Media Foundation (2011) and the European Institute for Gender Equality (2013) as well as local case studies – have been published in the recent years. They all point at a somewhat ironic pattern that is specific for the region: gender equality is not the effect of adopting Western standards (i.e. free-market democracy) but a holdover from the communist period.
In fact, what the reports point out is that in Central Europe, the process of Westernising media has brought about a decline in gender equality. This has been achieved by targeting women, the former tractor-driving sexless workers – as Elza Ibroscheva put it – and shifting their role into that of objects of sexual desire. This translates into the commodification of female bodies in media content, especially advertising, where they serve as vehicles intended to drive up sales. Secondly, for women the contemporary shift toward the Western world has signified both less pay and, equally important, the solidifying of glass ceilings, which women have increasingly had to struggle with in the upper echelons of media companies.
(Against) stereotyping gender roles
On a global level, three out of four people mentioned in print, radio and television news are male, and a similar pattern can be found in online news. Furthermore, in four out of five instances men are the focal point of the news. Women are twice as likely to have their age mentioned than men, and they are also twice as likely to be portrayed as victims and survivors. This also points at another major trait, namely that in most instances both genders are shown in stereotypical roles: the man as active, forceful and rational; the woman as passive, nurturing and emotional.
Still, both genders share similar screen time as news presenters. However, hard news (i.e. news concerning politics, the economy and finance) is still the dominion of male reporters, while women, for the most part, report on topics considered soft such as social issues, health, culture and entertainment.
In Central-Eastern Europe, the picture is somewhat different. Paradoxically, the sexless (at least ostensibly) communist past has been working in favour of women in the media. According to the EIGE report, the optimistic reason may be that media organisations have been implementing women-friendly policies. In a less rosy version, media as an industry is becoming increasingly feminised, which also translates into lower pay. Nonetheless, the IWMF report points at the relatively high numbers of women in management roles in media in Central-Eastern Europe—higher than in Western European countries—ranging from over 21% in Estonia to nearly 49% in Russia, while also noting a general wage parity (with the exception of Ukraine, where men in top governance positions in media earn twelve times as much as women).
Nevertheless, in Hungary, for example, women make up only 13% of those in governance and one third of top-level management positions; in Lithuania the figures are, respectively, around 31% and 29%; in Poland nearly 30% and 25%. Interestingly, in Poland women earn slightly more than men in middle management positions. Overall, the lower the rank and the more marketing or human-resources oriented the job, the more women can be found in media companies. In all the Central-Eastern European countries surveyed, women are offered paid maternity leave and (at least theoretical) job security after returning to work.
Communist heritage: a gender equality (of sorts)
As Mojca Pajnik writes, the “capitalist mode of media production seems to have forced women out of their jobs and away from relatively equal positions – relatively, since equality was largely limited to the sphere of labour, while inequality in the private sphere persisted.” Yet, the strong position of women in media organisations in the region compared to those in Western Europe is a result of their communist heritage. The communist economic system required a large workforce and thus had to incorporate women. However, this did not mean equal jobs for all since, as the author emphasises, women had to work a second shift at home, working in total about fifteen hours per week more than women in Western Europe.
This toil is particularly noticeable in the powerful image of the resourceful “Polish Mother”, sacrificing her own well-being for the sake of men; a trope that has existed ever since the Polish uprisings in the 19th century and which still continues in today’s free-market democracy. Still, higher gender equality in the workforce and state-sanctioned maternity leave have remained staples of the region even after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and in this particular respect Westernisation has been mostly detrimental. For example, gender mainstreaming promoted by the European Commission is not particularly visible when it comes to wages throughout the European Union, with men generally earning more than women in the media sector. In this respect, Central-Eastern Europe has been clearly more successful.
Women are more often television than radio presenters, looks playing a factor in attracting audiences. Yet, at the same time, they are five times less likely to act as experts. Instead, women are usually presented either as celebrities or as “ordinary” citizens. As for women in power, they have to prove their “masculinity” such as creativity, but even if they do so (all the while looking impeccable) it is at the cost of failing in the household.
According to the 2015 Global media Monitoring Project, the highest parity in the news in Central-Eastern Europe is noted in Belarus (44% women to 55% men), and the lowest in Poland (31% women to 69% men). Interestingly, the vast majority of television and radio presenters are women (95%) in Belarus, the second highest ratio can be found in Poland (64%), while Hungary and Estonia favour male presenters (61% and 63% respectively). On the internet, the biggest gender parity is noted in Belarus with preference given to women (55% compared to 45% men), while in Hungary male online reporters clearly dominate (88%). In addition, the people who are mentioned online in the region are, too, overwhelmingly male, from 71% in Hungary to 88% in Poland. A similar pattern can also be found on social media in the Czech Republic, where men are far more likely than women to make political comments on politicians’ and political parties’ fan pages.
Exhibit A: politics
Two instances of screen time are particularly worth mentioning in the context of gender and media in Central-Eastern Europe: one is advertising, the other politics. In their study of Czech and Slovak elections, Kovář and Kovár (2014) found that Slovakian women who are more likely to have higher positions on the ballots have a higher chance of getting elected to the European Parliament rather than national elections because the former is considered less important. Lühiste and Banducci (2016) confirm this as a pan-European trend, namely that women are nominated for these political positions to make them less threatening to male candidates. The result is that media focus on the more viable candidates who tend to be men. At the same time, if women are in fact elected, they are judged both by their “masculine” performance (e.g. ambition, negotiation skills) and “feminine” traits (e.g. appearance).
Exhibit B: advertising
The importance of appearance and stereotypical gender roles is even more magnified in advertising. In their study of advertisements in Poland, Twardowska and Olczyk (2000) show that while on the one hand women are presented as responsible for taking care of the household and of other people (most often children and a husband), the ads focused on their looks or portrayed women as sexual objects for the pleasure of men; on the other hand, men are depicted as experts who like to spend time with other males (drinking beer). Thus, despite the gender-equalising communist heritage, in this context, advertising has quickly become Westernised.
One of the reasons may be that television commercials especially of household goods were translated copies of German ads. However, a recent Czech example shows that gender stereotyping does not necessarily require direct Western influence: in June, the Temelín nuclear plant decided to search for candidates for an internship by creating a swimsuit contest. Further South-East, a language school in Croatia’s capital advertised English courses with billboards of Melania Trump captioned “Just imagine how far you can go with a little bit of English”. Both ads caused international media outrage and were quickly taken down.
Who is Western?
It is an irony that in terms of gender equality the communist past in Central-Eastern Europe has shown to be in many ways more Western than Western Europe itself. These traditions of equality in the work force, even if limited, continue to be important shapers of the region’s media reality today and should be used to further foster gender parity. At the same time, given the undeniable influence of Western-European countries on Central-Eastern Europe, the more effort is put in the West not merely to promote but to implement gender parity in media organisations’ back- and front offices, the better the chances for gender balance all over Europe.
Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer is a sociologist, an assistant professor at Kozminski University and a visiting fellow at London School of Economics and Political Science.