Even in dream jobs, Latvian women have difficulty cracking glass ceiling

  • 2012-12-12
  • By Laura Kenins

RIGA - Given the choice to choose the gender of their supervisor at work, more than three times as many Latvians would choose a man than a woman, a recent study indicates. The results of the study by Latvian research center SKDS were published in November, with 31.6 percent of respondents overall expressing preference for a male boss and a mere 8.1 percent preferring a female.

Those numbers may seem shocking, but the majority of respondents - 56 percent - said it didn’t matter, while a further 4.3 percent said it was difficult to say. The study asked participants: “If you were able to choose, would you prefer to work in a workplace where the boss was a man, or a workplace where the boss was a woman?” The study, done in October, is a repetition of a survey done in 2008.

The number of people preferring a male boss was relatively consistent across age groups, and numbers were similar between men and women, with 33 percent of men and 30 percent of women preferring to work for a male boss; 9 percent of women and 7 percent of men would prefer to work for a woman. Nearly 40 percent of respondents in Riga and Latgale, eastern Latvia, preferred a man, while in other areas, the number was around 26 percent. Russian speakers were also more likely to prefer a male boss (which is consistent with the geographical split, as the greatest concentrations of Russian speakers are in these areas). Low-income respondents were more likely to say gender wasn’t important, while among respondents in the highest income bracket, the numbers were close to evenly split between those who didn’t care and those who preferred a man.

Though the results do not vary widely from the 2008 study, the number of people preferring a male boss increased from 29.9 percent in 2008, while the number who preferred a woman dropped from 10 percent four years ago. The number of people who had no preference increased from 54.7 percent to 56 percent.
Even though a (slight) majority doesn’t care about the gender of their supervisors, what does it mean for Latvian workers and Latvian women when 40 percent of people in the country’s largest city think a man is better suited for the job? The disparity between the 32 percent and 8 percent is troubling, as well as the information that not only men, but also women, would prefer a male boss.

Women in Latvia make up slightly more than half of the workforce, according to the most recent statistical data from the state statistics bureau (Latvijas Statistika). Government data shows that women’s average gross salaries over the past few years have been around 90 lats (130 euros) per month below men’s average salaries. In the first quarter of 2012, men earned an average 511 lats per month, while women made only 426 lats on average. While wages were similar in some sectors, the difference in others was substantial, with women in finance and insurance earning only slightly more than half of what men earn, and men in communications earning close to 200 lats per month more than women. Data on whether women held higher-up positions within these industries was not available, though one can surmise from the salary data that female employees are overrepresented in the lower ranks, or else earning significantly less than their male colleagues when they do hold managerial positions.

Another troubling finding is that according to many Latvians, this isn’t a problem. A 2009 study from the European Union’s Eurostat bureau asked residents of each EU country whether they felt that gender inequality was widespread in their country. While across Europe 62 percent of people said that gender inequality was widespread, the majority of respondents in Latvia said it was rare or very rare. (More than half of Estonian respondents and 48 percent of Lithuanians also thought inequality was rare.)

These attitudes give employers an easy excuse to perpetuate inequality. If few people feel that there’s a problem, there is little impetus to change: if a woman is passed over for a promotion in favor of her male colleague, this must be due solely to qualification for the specific position and unrelated to sex, if gender inequality is “rare.”

Globally, women continue to be underrepresented in management positions, even in countries where people are aware and working to change the situation. Engrained stereotypes don’t help the problem. An extensive 2006 study, “Gender Equality Aspects in the Labor Market,” supported by the European Structural Fund, showed that, while men and women in the Latvian labor market were segregated by industry, with men dominating many of the better-paid industries, the more significant and problematic segregation in regards to discrimination was vertical – the overrepresentation of men in higher positions, notably in government and business.

On the same day that the results of this report were published, the Latvian newspaper Diena reported that former president Vaira Vike-Freiberga was celebrating her 75th birthday, noting proudly that she was the first female head of state in Eastern Europe. One might hope that this point of national pride could be a precedent for Latvian workplaces rather than an anomaly. The 2006 study noted that “Women-politicians are paid more attention to; their political work is being evaluated more critically.” Men were also more likely to think they had better possibilities for finding employment and advancement, according to the same study. The 2006 study posed the same question to Latvian women as the recent SKDS survey, where they found that 70 percent of women didn’t care about the gender of their boss; however, similar to the SKDS survey, 25 percent preferred to work for a man, giving reasons that men are “more constructive, analytical, and logical and… easier to communicate with.”

Various surveys in this 2006 study all uncovered underlying attitudes that there were few problems and barriers in the Latvian labor market. Besides looking at attitudes, the 2006 study also investigated sexual harassment in the workplace and the effects of maternity leave and childcare on female workers. Responses from surveyed workers reinforced attitudes that men dominated in the workplace: both women and men blamed women for ‘distracting’ male workers by dressing provocatively or just being there. Women reported having to contend with jokes about their gender, harassment, and feelings of not having any recourse for sexual harassment in the workplace, that they would not be taken seriously if they made a complaint (male respondents backed this up, as many suggested that female workers would call as much as ‘a glance’ harassment).

And while employers in the labor survey, as well as 56 percent of respondents in the recent SKDS survey, claim that the gender of a person is irrelevant in hiring or selection, more specific questions showed many underlying attitudes that men were better suited to some positions, or that women wouldn’t enter some of these positions especially because of the gender imbalance. Given the barriers already facing women in their workplaces, the fact that many women themselves feel that men make better supervisors is particularly discouraging, as a female supervisor would likely have a better understanding of these challenges, as well as greater power to affect change.

So while 56 percent of Latvians may say their bosses’ gender doesn’t matter, it’s clear that it does, and a lot of changes in attitude are still required to achieve greater workplace equality in Latvia.