THE BLOG

Working Women in Hungary

Women entered the workforce in large numbers in East-Central Europe after World War II. One reason was necessity. The countries had been devastated by war, and many able-bodied men had died as soldiers and forced laborers. Another reason was ideology. Communism emphasized full employment. Women in the region would eventually participate in the labor market in rates higher than any other developed part of the world.

"To ensure that women would seek out paid work, the wage structure was altered; wage setting was centralized and state-controlled, and the family wage was abolished," according to a report by the UN agency UNIFEM. "In the early years of this transformation, women were expected to do the same jobs as men, receive the same training and wages, and take on the same leadership responsibilities."

To facilitate the large-scale entrance of women into the workforce, the Communist governments created an entirely new social network that included day care centers for working women, cafeterias at the workplace, and holiday centers. Membership in the official trade union was obligatory.

Zsuzsa Kadar grew up in this system and confesses that it was easier to balance work and family back then. The daughter of a mechanical engineer, she became a chemical engineer and worked in a rubber factory. She rose in the ranks of the Chemical Workers Federation and eventually became an international secretary, communicating with trade unions across Europe. After the changes in 1989-90, the official trade union confederation fractured into several pieces, and Kadar went on to work for the Autonom confederation where she became a regional secretary.

I met her in 1993, when it was not an easy time to be working at a trade union. Unemployment had risen sharply. The social network of daycare and other services had disappeared. Union membership had plummeted.

"Because of unemployment, we lost a lot of members," she told when we met up again last May in her apartment in a building overlooking the Parliament in Budapest. "We tried to convince the unemployed to remain trade union members, but they said, 'Zsuzsa, we need all this money. We can't pay the affiliate fees from the unemployment payment. It's too small. We have to feed our families. If we find another job, we'll again be members of the trade union.'"

It was a particularly difficult time for women. In 1993, she told me about a job-retraining seminar that the union offered to 20 women threatened with dismissal. But when the seminar began, only one of the women attended. They were afraid to change their occupations, and were convinced that at their age, over 40, they didn't have a future in another profession.

Today, a wage gap still exists between men and women. "If you look at the salaries of men and women, women are working 59 days for free at their jobs," she reports. "And this difference in salary between men and women is getting bigger."

Kadar was tasked with introducing the union to foreign owners who had taken over Hungarian enterprises. Often these male owners did not expect a woman as the union representative and asked to speak with her boss. But she held her ground and did what she could to maintain a union presence at the factories.

She had to combat both male and female stereotypes about how a woman should act in a position of leadership. "I was the first woman who became a regional secretary at the European level. It was a big fight. A lot of women said, 'We don't want a woman. We like Zsuzsa, but we want a man.' In the end, they said, "Zsuzsa, you are an imitation of a woman because you are working like a man.' Slowly they accepted me as a regional secretary, not as a woman. I had to change their mentality so that they could see that equal opportunity is very important in the workplace as well."

It was a fight, but she was successful. "Last year, Ted X Women asked me to speak about my experience," she concluded with a smile. "I am on YouTube also talking about my life and how I influenced male mentality."

We talked about her memories of the 1956 uprising, why she led the fight against the women's committee at the European trade union confederation, and her feelings about the current government in Hungary.

The Interview

As a woman, you've been in important positions. How do you think the status of women has changed in Hungary?

A lot of women have their own businesses, and they are very successful in various careers. Women have more possibility to show their creativity and their power. On the one hand, that's great. On the other hand, there aren't enough jobs. A lot of women are obliged to stay at home. Sometimes you have to choose between career and family, which is the same situation all over Europe. But those women who have careers have good careers.

And do you think there's equality in Hungarian society between men and women?

No. If you look at the salaries of men and women, women are working 59 days for free at their jobs. And this difference in salary between men and women is getting bigger.

Have you had any second thoughts about the way you look at the world compared to when you were younger?

Yes, of course. I was the first woman who became a regional secretary at the European level. It was a big fight. A lot of women said, "We don't want a woman. We like Zsuzsa, but we want a man." In the end, they said, "Zsuzsa, you are an imitation of a woman because you are working like a man." Slowly they accepted me as a regional secretary, not as a woman. I had to change their mentality so that they could see that equal opportunity is very important in the workplace as well. Slowly they accepted me as a teacher also, as a colleague also. It was a very difficult fight. And now you can't imagine how many times they call me or email to ask for help. I was in the Netherlands last year talking about how the culture has changed in East-Central European countries. Last year, Ted X Women asked me to speak about my experience. I am on YouTube also talking about my life and how I influenced male mentality.

You jumped over many barriers.

Like a hurdler.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

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