Tigers in high heels? Latvian women in business

  • 2011-08-03
  • By Monika Hanley

CORNER OFFICE: Despite appearances, women in Latvia are well-represented in the workforce.

RIGA - Despite the idea that discrimination of women in business is rampant in Latvia and the Baltic States, studies by both local and international groups have shown otherwise. There is also a common misconception that women are not able to work in the fields they choose, as those fields are predominately oriented towards male workers. Women’s business NGO Lidere annually publishes a study of “Latvian Entrepreneurial Women.” The study found that in recent years, even since the early 2000s, 72 percent of women have been able to work in the field of their choice. The main obstacle to overcome (at 33.8 percent) was financial, while the negative attitude towards women in business only accounted for 1.8 percent of the overall troubles facing women in business. 

“We all know that there are more men than women in business. One of the most frequently proposed reasons for this is that, compared to men, women are less confident in their abilities, they are not as willing to risk and many think, ‘What will happen if I fail?’” says Irina Petersone of the Women’s Association Lietisko Sieviesu Apvieniba.
“At the same time, women have a higher sense of responsibility. Women as business partners are honest, they can be trusted. Women are determined and focused - they will make every effort to accomplish their mission and to implement the project. All these features are needed in business. It follows that business is also suitable for women,” explains Petersone, highlighting the ongoing project together with Sweden on business mentoring for women.

The business atmosphere in Latvia, some say, is already ahead of its neighbors in terms of equality.
Highlighting a difference between Latvia and Lithuania, we can look at the Lithuanian company Olialia, a ‘blondes only’ company which gained international press last year for their plans to operate a resort in the Maldives exclusively with blonde staff. The company has a hugely diverse portfolio, with business ventures ranging from ice cream and bus services to nightclubs and cosmetics. The only issue that some have is the inherent discrimination, and also inequality the company presents.

“Not only is the ‘blonde island’ idea demeaning to women, but borderline racist,” said Margarita Jankauskaite, director of the Lithuanian Center for Equality Advancement.
“I am ashamed that this initiative came from my country. This only sends a message to the world that Lithuania is a country of cheap beer and cheap blond women,” Jankauskaite continued.

However, the company has been praised for its highly successful, if not scantily clad, marketing. Something that the Latvian Association of Blondes has picked up on in recent years, starting with its annual Blonde Parade for charity. However, this company of blonde women has seen profits in the past year jump over 100 percent, with a brand recognition of 99 percent in Lithuania. The company, in cooperation with business partners, operates in 75 business sectors, with over three million euros in sales alone.

Should Latvians play up their blonde image to make money? Or is Latvia more focused on achieving a balance in the work place, not carving out a specific corner in which women can operate?
Latvia seems to be headed towards promoting equality, but not going too far as to create an imbalance for men. Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Latvia’s former president, has come out publically to emphasize that, despite stereotypes or differences, the focus should be on ability, and not gender.

What has made the former Latvian president’s viewpoint so quotable abroad is that it strongly urges people not to be so wrapped up in promoting one gender’s rights and equality that the other gender suffers as a result.
“When I was elected president, without looking at my biography or leadership abilities, often I was asked – how do you feel as a female president? I would answer that I couldn’t compare it, because I have never been a male president, and that the position of president is such that there are no women or men, but a simple president. Parents, teachers and society should be encouraged to teach children to feel comfortable and be aware of their rights, regardless of sex, as they deserve the same respect,” said Vike-Freiberga.

“I wish to remove obstacles step by step, eliminate unseen doors, as well as visible violations, inequality and, if that does not work immediately, do not quit! I urge women not to lose courage, diligence, but to go to their goals and develop their potential,” said the former president at a recent conference.
Regardless of the economic crisis’ silver lining that some businesses may be seeing, 44 percent of women in Latvia do in fact find it hard to start up businesses, and thusly, the Latvian Land and Mortgage bank recently began targeting businesses owned by women.

“We have given out about 44 million euros to businesses, about 15 million euros to those businesses owned by women,” says Juris Cebulis of the Latvian Land and Mortgage bank, “especially in rural areas where women are no longer employed on farms. It has a social aspect since it provides new jobs.”

These businesses range from bakeries and travel organizations to small businesses. One does not have to already be in business to start up their own business; in fact, the majority of women surveyed reported that they started their business coincidentally, and there are many talented women in Latvia who would like the opportunity to be business owners.
“But it is clear that someone who has a natural talent for business should be in business, and there are a lot of women who should be in business,” continued Cebulis.

But how does the propensity towards moving to big cities and abroad to start business affect life locally?  By taking away the workforce, many rural areas are faced with a large worker deficit. However, tourism and food production have always remained steady in rural areas, and now, with the loans from the local bank, one entrepreneur, Vija Ancane, can run her bread museum, bakery and shop, attracting a number of tourists, both from Riga and from abroad.
“When I started my business, I had a lot of questions, and I have to say that it is the governmental department’s bureaucracy which can kill anyone. If you approach them with a simple question, such as ‘Can you explain this to me?’, they act superior. ‘Who are you? How dare you ask us?’” explained Ancane.

What has Ancane learned from her experience? “I think now that women should come together and solve their problems together. This is why we also set up a women’s club in Aglona (the aptly named ‘Forget-me-not’s’),” said Ancane. Her son, currently working abroad, will return to Latvia next year to help her in her business venture. Another positive sign of growth, as citizens, in however small numbers, begin to return to Latvia to seek business opportunities.

What does the future look like for Latvian and Baltic women in business? Looking at the recent rise in businesses owned and operated by women, one could say the outlook is positive. However, one of the latest issues brought up by the European Commission, to impose quotas on women in business, has former President Vaira Vike-Freiberga reeling. “What does it actually mean to have quotas? It’s to say we don’t have enough competent or interested women to do a certain job,” Vike-Freiberga told the EUobserver earlier this year. 

In fact, these quotas, an idea borrowed from Norway, are heavily supported by the European Parliament and, if voluntary steps are not taken, the European Commission vows to create binding legislation. The idea is to urge EU businesses to hire women to their executive boards by 2012 or face a mandatory quota of 40 percent. Presently, women make up about 10 percent of directors and 3 percent of CEO’s in Europe’s largest companies.