How would Marie Curie fare in Poland’s current academic and business environment?

With new research centres and governmental initiatives, female participation in traditionally male careers like academia and tech is on the up in Poland. But traditional attitudes are difficult to shake – and they could have consequences for the country’s economy and prospects.

The grand opening of the Łukasiewicz Research Network this year should have been seen as a new, more prosperous dawn for Polish academia. With the former Secretary of State in the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, Piotr Dardziński, as the organisation’s President, the intention was for the Network to be an accessible bridge between science and business in Poland, coordinating institutes across the country to promote vital research and entrepreneurial projects. And, at its centre: the ground-breaking work of young scientists, whose work aims to match and supply the growth of the country’s economy.

“Our capital is people,” says Dardziński. “Over 4,500 specialists representing various scientific disciplines, men and women, who have the courage to break stereotypes and the passion to create innovative solutions for business.”

But access is precisely what is needed at a human level – and especially for a new generation of female Polish academics and scientists, struggling to embark on and sustain careers in Poland.

At 7.2%, Poland holds the 5th lowest difference in average gross earnings between women and men in the EU (Eurostat).

Historical Obstacles

In Poland, innovative approaches like the Łukasiewicz Research Network are proving to be far from enough to tackle traditional biases against female participation. For historian Dr Iwona Dadej, whose work focuses on the role of female academics in Poland in the early 20th-century, statistics showing an increase in female participation do not always offer the full picture. Initially, she says of early 20th-century history, female participation looked positive, and the newly-independent Polish state was quick to allow women the right to higher education – which was followed by swift cultural changes.

“The Polish language itself reacted very quickly to the new cultural phenomenon, which was the wave of young women from Polish territories who in large numbers went to Zürich, Paris or St. Petersburg to obtain a university education,” says Dadej, noting the creation of a Polish word for the female version of student: ‘studentka’.

But despite this seemingly progressive stance, she stresses, women at the time were still seen as second-class citizens – including Marie Skłodowska Curie. And though female prospects have markedly improved since then, underlying difficulties still remain.

Aleksandra Pędraszewska, Co-founder & COO at VividQ and member of the think tank PLUGin, notes that female participation at a global level is still lower than that of males, though the situation in Poland has added complexities. And there is no denying that more favourable gender statistics have been published about the country in recent years, which she suggests is down to the erasure of divisions between men and women in the immediate post-war landscape.

“If anything good can be said about the communist rule in Poland,” Pędraszewska explains, “it certainly did open up access to education across disciplines for women, irrespective of their social background.”

40% of all managers in Poland are female, as are 50% of government senior staff (OECD).

Pędraszewska says that “Poland has been doing better in attracting female talent in STEM than Western European countries, with over 40% of female graduates in science and engineering subjects in 2001.” In the UK, the percentage of women in STEM subjects has not exceeded 25% in any single year in the past 20 years, according to the WISE Campaign, a company which focuses on encouraging girls to pursue science and tech-related courses in school. Across some countries in Central and Eastern Europe, meanwhile, statistics show that as high as half of all scientists and engineers are women, as The Economist reported in 2018.

“[The Communist Party] had a strong impact on the way female participation in professional life has been perceived by the last two generations, removing some of the social barriers to careers in STEM,” says Pędraszewska.

In 2018, Poland held the 7th worst female labour force participation rate (60.8%) in the EU – but only 2.6% below the EU average.

Looking at PwC’s 2019 Women in Work Index, Poland has certainly risen through the ranks of the Index since 2000, becoming the second-biggest mover on the chart mainly as a result of narrowing the gender pay gap and reducing the female unemployment rate. According to Eurostat, the country enjoys the 5th lowest gender pay gap (7.2% difference) in the EU, showing up the likes of Sweden (12.6%), the Netherlands (15.2%), the UK (20.8%) and Germany (21.8%).

But Poland, as the Women in Work Index shows, remains the only OECD country in which the participation gap has not narrowed in the long term.

Justyna Wojniak from the Polish Women Scientists Network says that although figures are showing improvement, there is still much to be done. Her network promotes female researchers in an effort to overcome barriers which still prevent women from achieving success in science. 

According to Wojniak, “various studies on inequalities between women and men raise the problem of limited cooperation between women due to their family responsibilities and poor social and business contacts. This can result in support and assistance in professional matters.” Wojniak says the foundation works at the root of the problem to show that it is possible to “develop a network of Polish scientists that will inspire and facilitate the implementation of various projects.” 

41% of graduates in STEM in Poland are women, which is the highest ratio in the OECD (OECD).

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Yet, with falling birth rates and a decidedly family-oriented political focus, this is not happening the way it should. The 2018 Inclusive Entrepreneurship Policies: Country Assessment for Poland notes that one of the greatest challenges is insufficient childcare support. Though they felt that ‘the government has taken steps to improve childcare options to help women participate in the labour market’, including a 2011 law promoting flexibility in setting up nurseries or children’s clubs, more incentives were needed.

For Dadej, a two-pronged, more comprehensive strategy should be applied. “Structural changes should also go hand in hand with transformations of mentality,’ she explains. “I am thinking primarily about changes in perceptions about the role and place of women in society, and therefore also about science.”

The gender disparity has been at the forefront of recent promotions of Polish contributions to science, with the second edition of the Polish-British Science Forum focusing on Women in STEM. And UK-based Polish science communicator Dr Joanna Bagniewska is keen to highlight how mentality differs between both nations with regard to female participation. “The one thing I have noticed a difference in is the level of discourse in society – what is unacceptable or frowned upon in the UK can still be quite common in Poland,” she says.

“About ten years ago I was representing the Oxford University Polish Society at a meeting in the Polish senate. When I mentioned to a senator that we had met previously at a rowing event in London, another senator asked if I had been a cheerleader there.” Some male colleagues, she notes, did criticise this behaviour, but her view is that the likelihood of such sexist comments being condemned is more common in the UK.

28% of Polish females hold a master’s degree, the second-highest ratio in the OECD (OECD).

Fertile opportunities?

Pędraszewska says that Poland lags behind other European nations because it lacks concrete social or political policies to maintain – as well as improve – female participation. “Poland of the 21st century cannot rely solely on historically favourable statistics,” she says. “Polish universities and technology businesses will need to take a strong stance to support women’s development and recognise some of the issues – including the gender pay gap, access to maternity and paternity leave and casual discrimination – that in many cases have not been called by their name yet.”

Olga Siddons, business advisor and former CEO of PwC in CEE, agrees that female participation in academia and business is mainly impacted by the conflict between career ambitions and maternity, which is also a conflict in other OECD countries. In an article for PwC and Emerging Europe, she noted the close-knit family ties in Eastern European culture that allow responsibility for childcare to be shared and provide women the freedom to pursue career goals 

And as PwC’s Winning the Fight for Female Talent report showed, the opportunity for career progression is the top priority for female employees in CEE when choosing an employer – whereas work-life balance came in third, despite it being ranked number one on a global level. Combined with good-quality crèches, the opportunities should be ripe for a long-term increase in the numbers of women continuing their careers.

Poland holds the 2nd highest share of women entering doctoral programmes (OECD).

The changing face of Polish academia and business

Addressing these issues – be it structurally or otherwise – should be a priority for the future of Polish academia and business, which faces different demands in the new knowledge-based economy. Siddons feels the demand for leaders with different sets of skills, who can adapt to meet requirements, should be seen as an opportunity for women.

“Businesses are looking for both hard technical skills and skills traditionally referred to as ‘soft’, such as communication, problem-solving, teamwork, collaboration and creativity,” she says. “These profiles suit female leaders who typically score well on intellectual and emotional intelligence.”

One of the core tenets of the EU’s upcoming multiannual financial framework (MFF) package is set to be research and development, but Poland faces an uphill battle, with the economy often criticised for low levels of technological know-how, few incentives and little capital, and with an impenetrable bureaucracy. But women have the potential to change this.

The recent Women in Tech Gender Equality Guide by PLUGin is clear in explaining the business benefits of gender diversity. According to the Anita Borg Institute, which supports women in technology,  Fortune 500 companies with at least three female directors have seen their return on invested capital increase by at least 66%, return on sales by 42%, and on equity by at least 53%. And the guide is also there to offer a helping hand: it recommends both institutional and personal methods to combat the inherent gender bias, including the use of language.

Just as Dadej’s work revealed cultural changes at the turn of the century, they argue that “speaking of your company’s ‘deweloperzy’ [word for male developers in Polish] when there are women on the team is a symbolic erasure of the females [present]. Going for ‘deweloperzy i deweloperki”, which denotes male and female specialists, is far more inclusive.’”

Polish science and business may aim to produce the next Marie Curies, but they also need to escape the past; a priority that should be addressed by both vast institutions like the Łukasiewicz Research Network and at the local level.

As Dadej reminisces: “I am always fascinated by the fact that humanity can fly to the moon and Mars … but when it comes to gender bias, thinking patterns about culturally determined social roles, especially the role of women, we are still stuck in the 19th century.”

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