“There are Plenty of Capable Women in Our Society”: an interview with Hana Stelzerová – Director of the Czech Women’s Lobby11 min read
For International Women’s Day, Owen Howells interviewed Hana Stelzerová – Director of the Czech Women’s Lobby (CWL) to discover her views on the situation for women in the Czech Republic, her inspiration for pursuing her career, and her perspectives on women’s roles in the Covid-19 crisis.
Can you, in your own words, briefly outline what the Czech Women’s Lobby is and what it does.
The Czech Women’s Lobby is a network consisting of 37 organisations. Our purpose is to promote, but also to defend women’s rights, mainly by supporting the work of our member organisations. Together we advocate laws that ensure a better life for women, promote gender equality, and strengthen the position of disadvantaged groups of women. This is our main aim and purpose. Also, we are part of the European Women’s Lobby, through this cooperation, we work alongside the European Union and perform advocacy work within the EU.
What inspired you to take up this role, was there a particular moment which inspired your career choice?
I think I was always inspired, but I didn’t know that such a job existed. My life very much led me to this job. I studied sociology and I was always very interested in women’s rights seminars and lectures, so already at university, I gained knowledge about women’s issues. Then I started working for an NGO focusing on participation and the development of democratic principles. Then I moved to another NGO that focused on social services and community planning.
But none of those were my issue. When I finished that job, I found an advertisement that led me to the Czech Women’s Lobby. I didn’t know much about the women’s movement in the Czech Republic. But I very shortly felt an attachment and could use my knowledge from university and develop my abilities to lead the network. It was unexpected, but I can say that now, after 20 years this is my issue, and I would like to spend the rest of my life working on it.
In your time working for the women’s lobby, how would you say the position for women in the Czech Republic has changed?
I would think that in some ways the situation is the same, in some ways it is not. The statistics still show that women are in a worse position than men. We have a gender pay gap, and there is a huge problem of poverty for women, especially among single mothers. Also, when you reach retirement and don’t have a husband or a close family who will help you, the likelihood of poverty increases. By talking about these problems, you will see them more clearly. That is why we might perceive these problems as having grown, but I think they have always been there.
Last year, for example, the issue of poverty amongst single mothers was raised in the press, and there was a huge feeling of solidarity from the public. Now there are new NGO’s who are helping single mothers, as sometimes they don’t have enough money to feed their children. There will be a wave of solidarity in society if they feel that the issue is relevant. Unfortunately, society often doesn’t see these issues as a problem of gender inequality.
In many countries around Europe, the Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted women economically. Would you say that is the same in the Czech Republic and what can the government do to address this issue?
Across Europe the situation is the same. Most of the people in the care industry who are unable to stay at home are women. Something must happen. At least they should get equal pay for the hard work they are doing. At the beginning of the pandemic, we didn’t know if everyone who caught the virus would die. These brave women stayed at work despite this, taking care of the needy as they always do, and for very little pay. No remedy occurred. We saw that while society stopped, these social services cannot, hospitals cannot, they always need to function. Now that society is focusing on recovering the economy, this issue has once again been forgotten.
In the Czech Republic you have several migrant communities, most noticeably the Vietnamese and Roma communities. What are the issues which specifically affect women from those communities?
We have been working with our member organisations who focus on this issue, namely the Association for Integration and Migration, and Manushe which is an organisation that works with Roma women. In discussion with them we learned that the same issues with the economy affect them, but twice as much, if not more.
Migrant women are now mostly without work – they would usually be doing low paid jobs such as cleaning houses. The crisis stopped their employment and they have often been unable to get back home [because of COVID-19 restrictions and lack of money]. For example, Ukrainian workers couldn’t cross the border. In addition to these issues, there is the issue of violence against women. When government services were shut down [that could help them], and women were stuck at home, the violence often got worse. These women have even less access to service that could help them than Czech women.
What would you like to see changed in the Czech Republic to improve the situation for women from all communities?
I see examples from other countries when we are cooperating with different embassies – the Swedish Embassy, British Embassy, US Embassy, French Embassy – because for them, this issue is a priority. They see gender equality as a solution to many problems in society, not just for women, but for the whole society. I would like to see the Czech Republic accept gender inequality as an issue because right now we do not. Because we always have to take time to explain the problem, there often isn’t time for finding solutions. I see that in our member organisations. We are worn out. In five years you get back to where you were five years ago. However, I also see many young people – both women and men – who are really into feminism and gender equality because we as a society are speaking about it. It gives me a sense of optimism and hope for the future.
2020 has seen extraordinary success in handling the Covid-19 pandemic of female leaders, from Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand to Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan. Do you feel that this is a useful conversation, separating women politicians into a separate group? And secondly, do you think that women bring a certain set of skills or understanding that have made them particularly able to deal with the pandemic?
Yes! With regards to the pandemic, you can see how different the perspectives were between male and female politicians. I think that women can approach these issues more practically because they are mostly the ones with direct experience of using public services and more often involved in the care sector. People do not understand many of the measures that have been implemented during the pandemic, it doesn’t make sense and I think that is in part because in our country more than 90% of the decision-makers are men. Take Finland for example, where more than 50% of the government is female and they have had a very successful campaign against COVID-19.
We can now see very clearly what we lose from not having a gender perspective. We wrote a letter to the Minister for Industry and Trade, highlighting the fact that for the working group tasked with solving the pandemic, there was only one woman nominated. He nominated another woman, but actually, he didn’t get the point. He claimed knowledge and ability were more important than if they were a man or woman. Of course, this is true, but there are plenty of capable women in our society.
To see women in the top positions of government elsewhere is fantastic, to show solidarity with other women. If there is only one woman in an all-male department, she may adjust and behave the same way if she doesn’t have any allies. That is why a balance between men and women is important.
Linked to this point, when do you think you will see a female Czech Prime Minister or President?
We actually had a project on this during the last Presidential elections, looking at important women or men who would like to become or support female presidential candidates. People feel that if we have the right candidate, abilities will win over gender alone. It would need to be someone well known, who isn’t controversial. I wish it would be possible like in Slovakia, that a relatively unknown lady managed to get elected to the office of President. We had no female candidates in the last presidential election, and previous female candidates haven’t been taken seriously. I think this is somehow changing and there may be a better chance at the next election.
What do you think the Czech education system could be doing to inspire more young women to feel they could run for these roles? To become top CEO or President?
First, all those who educate need to understand the problem [gender stereotyping and inequality]. If they don’t, they are just bringing the stereotypes into the school system. School materials need to reflect this also, but most importantly are the role models. Little girls or women can imagine being president if there is a female president. These are the three most important things that must happen.
Do you think girls in the Czech Republic are inspired by female leaders in other countries such as Zuzana Čaputová or Angela Merkel?
I don’t think many of them, I don’t want to say all of them, listen to the news. We certainly don’t have much news from Slovakia. Most of their role models- and I am talking about the ages of my children 10 and 13 – are Youtubers. We have to discuss if they are positive role models for girls. Boys will focus on games and gaming, those channels for girls are mostly about makeup and hair, so I can see how the world for girls and boys is very different. It would be better to see them more merged.
What do you think social media companies could do to address gender-bias within their platforms? Could they promote female Youtubers who discuss science or politics for example?
That’s an interesting issue, I am not an expert on social media, so I don’t know exactly how it works. Perhaps we could start with advertisements, it has been known for a long time that gender stereotypes in advertisements feed through into society. We need to see an end to adverts showing women cleaning whilst the man is sitting reading a book and so on. One of our organisations also ran a competition to report sexual harassment depicted in advertisements.
On a slight change of subject, the Czech Republic is known as being one of the more socially liberal countries in the region. However, what would you say are the continued problems for LGBT women in the Czech Republic, especially Trans Women?
To be honest we do not have close relations with specific LGBT organisations. I know there has been a lot of discussion within the European Women’s Lobby on this issue. We are cooperating with an initiative called We are Fair advocating for equal marriage rights for LGBT people and we have been supporting this as an organisation. I am very glad we are.
When you are talking to your two sons, what do you say to them, or do with them to teach them to be better men around women?
It was easier when they were smaller, I would explore questions with them when they were in kindergarten; whether they played with girls, always supporting them to be more empathetic. I tried to discover their opinion, asking if they thought women were equal to men and sometimes one of them would say things like ‘no girls are different and sometimes cleverer than I’. Already at a young age, they’d notice that men and women were treated differently. Now they are older and opposing me. They say, ‘you say this because you are working for this feminist lobby’, we will see how all this will develop, at least they know about the issues.
It’s very difficult as a parent. You meet their friends who are girls [at a younger stage] then at some point the girls disappear. I always try to find opportunities for them to meet different people and gain different perspectives…to bridge the divide.