Polish Women Locked Out of Politics, Win in Business

Polish communists treated women as political tokens, and their Solidarity union successors opposed abortion and divorce. Today, women have been shut out from political power but they excel as entrepreneurs and managers, even in industry and manufacturing.

Wanda Rapaczynski, CEO of Agora

WARSAW, Poland (WOMENSENEWS)-Twelve years after the fall of communism in 1989, Polish women are almost nowhere in terms of political influence, but they are becoming major players in the new economy as owners and managers.

Under communism, women were political tokens and few survived the transition to democracy and a market economy with credibility, unlike some men such as President Aleksander Kwasniewski. Hanna Suchocka, an exception, was a successful Solidarity trade union prime minister for nearly 18 months before she was ousted in early 1993 by a no-confidence vote on the budget put forth by Solidarity's parliamentary group.

Generally, however, Solidarity centrists ignored women, and religious activists within the Solidarity coalition took aim at them, pushing through laws restricting divorce and banning abortion. When ex-communists took power after Suchocka, they appointed few women and did little to fulfill a campaign pledge to legalize abortion in their four years before losing power to another Solidarity coalition.

Today in Poland, an overwhelmingly Catholic country, divorces can be obtained only in regional courts; the ban on abortion is the toughest in Europe, though underground abortions flourish, for a price.

In parliamentary elections in September, ex-communists returned to power, pledging yet again to relax the abortion law. Women won a fifth of the national parliamentary seats, but some of them represent a new religious party, the Polish Family League, which took 7.8 percent of the seats. The new government named two women to the cabinet, as ministers of justice and education.

Shut Out of Politics, Women Forge Ahead in Business, Management

With politics a closed club, women have made their mark in business and top management, coping and excelling even as the economy slows. The government doesn't keep statistics on women entrepreneurs but reported recently that women constitute about 30 percent of Poland's managers. And among them, there are some standouts:

Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz won plaudits for her steady hand as president of the National Bank of Poland. She now is vice president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Alicja Kornasiewicz was the Treasury Department point person for negotiating the sale of Poland's banks and insurers, selling most to multinational investors. She now heads an Austrian investment operation here.

When the last Solidarity government wanted to put industrial privatizations back on track last spring, they elevated Aldona Kamela-Sowinska to be Treasury Minister. When the government wanted to whip a huge retail bank into shape before it was privatized, they sent over Maria Wisniewska to be president; the Italian buyers have kept her on.

When the Social Security system faced a crisis in 2000, the man in charge was sacked and Aleksandra Wiktorow did such an impressive job in correcting problems that the victorious ex-communists said she was likely to stay in her job.

In Contrast to West, Women Run Industries and Manufacturing Plants

One of the few women who headed U.S. government projects here, June Lavelle, created her own database in 1998 and again in 2000 to get a fix on women business owners and women in management.

The 1998 survey found that women owned an estimated 20 percent of companies with five to 20 workers and as much as 20 percent of the mom-and-pop sole proprietorships. In contrast to the situation in the West, many Polish women operate manufacturing companies, taking private the skills they had honed in state socialist factories, making everything from industrial doors to boilers for city heating plants.

The survey of nearly 1,900 women managers, done for Lavelle by Babson College professors Richard Bliss and Lidija Polutnik, found that 45 percent were primary breadwinners. The average female manager was 51, married and working 51 hours a week in order to make $1,625 a month. Eighty-one percent had children and 61 percent had children at home, compared with only 20 percent in a recent survey of U.S. women managers.

And, the ubiquitous pay gap prevails in Poland: Men in comparable jobs earned 25 percent more than women, according to Lavelle's study.

Women seem to have emerged from the communist era with as much entrepreneurial energy and self-confidence as men. Although the communist rhetoric on equality fell far short of reality, especially in politics, women got good educations, including in math and science, and many of them held high positions as managers in bureaucracies as well as in factories. The very top jobs, however, were off limits to women.

Despite pressure from the Catholic Episcopate urging women to leave the workplace to become full-time wives and mothers, few women went home after the downfall of communism in 1989. Many bought the shops they had managed. Those who did so to save a job rather than sustain a business later sold or shuttered their stores, but many women persevered in business and flourished as entrepreneurs.

Thousands of women run companies in sectors that didn't exist before 1989, such as the EVIP consulting firm run by Ewa Plucinska. She began on her own, handling legal affairs here for emigres. She added a bookkeeper and then a secretary. Today she has nearly 100 employees and her recent work includes advising the government on restructuring steel mills.

Interior designer Magdalena Xardel opened a store to sell quirky and elegant design pieces, which a decade ago “you'd have found only if you went abroad,” she said.

Women Scientists Find Economics as Complicated as Solid-State Physics

Low-paid government women scientists quit in order to apply their research in private business and industry and to make enough money to buy work essentials such as a computer.

Physicist Elvira Machowska left the Polish Academy of Science in 1994. She had supplemented her $200 monthly research salary by tutoring young people in math and physics, but when the academy announced it couldn't pay wages for the next three months, she revolted.

She turned down job offers overseas to look for a job in business at home. Today she is general director and minority shareholder in Studiotech, an affiliate of a Belgian company, which is the interface between international TV equipment producers and major TV networks and production studios. She has a staff of 15, more than 500 clients, and despite a slowing economy, she expects sales to nearly double this year, to more than $6.1 million.

Much to her surprise, she said, “I find that economic problems are just as complicated and sophisticated as those in solid-state physics.”

In 1990, Polish women didn't face credit discrimination-there wasn't even credit. Many entrepreneurs bankrolled themselves.

Dorota Drewnowska and Malgosia Kujawska started Instytut Ksztalcenia Obcokrajowcow, a language school teaching Polish to foreigners, with less than $1,000 from savings and loans from relatives. It was enough to pay the rent, equip an office and buy one used computer. They taught all students themselves for the first year while developing conversation-immersion material modeled after what they had learned when they taught Polish to early Peace Corps volunteers here. Today, they have 40 full-time teachers and an average of 800 students a year, including top expatriate business managers.

Although the end of communism did not result in mass layoffs of women in factories as it did in Russia and the Ukraine, Polish women have been hard hit by the collapse of the country's industrial base, which had produced mostly export to the Soviet Union. Women staffing textile plants didn't have the political clout to win them early retirement packages as did the coal miners, and with Chinese textile goods flooding Poland, there was not a guaranteed future for garment factories.

Seamstresses are in high demand today, but tens of thousands of low-skilled textile factory women remain jobless after the government closed the plants. By contrast, military aircraft manufacturers were kept afloat until contracts arrived from Western defense contractors, after Poland joined NATO.

Today, women are 57 percent of the unemployed, which is 16.3 percent of the total work-ready population in September. Jobs created by entrepreneurs are crucial to the economy as socialist factories are shuttered or downsized by private owners.

Emigre Who Worked for Citibank Becomes Newspaper Publisher

Successful women entrepreneurs also include emigres who returned with vital skills.

Wanda Rapaczynski is chief executive of media powerhouse Agora, a billion-dollar newspaper and broadcast company created from scratch by Solidarity dissidents. Its flagship newspaper has a circulation of 465,000, double that of the competition; it controls more than half of Poland's newspaper ad revenue; its net profit jumped by one-third to $40 million from 1999 to 2000; it owns 14 radio stations and has more than $341 million earmarked for other investments. And it is poised to expand beyond Poland.

Rapaczynski left in 1968, after the communist-led anti-Semitic campaign, and took advanced degrees and top jobs in the United States. Her first trip back to Poland in 1990 was as head of Citibank's 120-person new-products retail group.

Helena Luczywo spent the 1980s one step ahead of the police as editor of underground Solidarity newspapers that kept the movement together after it was banned. She had begun the first private newspaper with Adam Michnik, a Solidarity writer-philosopher. At the request of Solidarity activist and leader Lech Walesa, they put together Gazeta Wyborcza (Election Gazette), launching the first issue only three weeks before the first partly free elections in mid-1989.

Solidarity candidates took every contested seat-and the communists relinquished power to them. In the months to come, the newspaper flourished, selling hundreds of thousands of copies without a sales campaign. Luczywo knew that high circulation would not last.

Luczywo persuaded Rapaczynski, now with Agora, to help shape the business side. She volunteered her expertise for two years, then left Citibank to return full time as the newspaper publisher. She successfully brought in investment money and was the key strategist in configuring Agora as the corporate parent.

When Agora went public in 1999, more than 1,500 employees got stock, and many of them today are wealthy. Rapaczynski, now worth $30 million, is given much credit for astute management of the fast-expanding Agora. And in June she was named one of Business Week's 50 most influential Europeans.

Peggy Simpson is a free-lance reporter who has covered Poland and other countries in transition since 1990.

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Polish Federation of Women and Family Planning: