What chance a first female Czech prime minister or president?

Photo: Office of the Government of the Czech Republic

Women in this part of the world have had the right to vote since the first Czechoslovak Constitution was approved a century ago. However, Czechs have never had a female prime minister or president and the vast majority of the country’s politicians are still men. Why is that? And how likely is change in this regard?

There are only four women in the Czech government,  photo: Office of the Government of the Czech Republic

In November Markéta Pekarová Adamová was elected chairwoman of TOP 09, making her the only female leader of a party in the Czech Parliament, and one of a tiny number of women to ever hold such a post.

Though it is often said that there are more women involved in politics at local level in the Czech Republic, in Parliament the level of female participation rarely climbs above a fifth of all legislators.

Veronika Šprincová is director of advocacy group Forum 50%.

“The situation is sometimes changing, because both in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, sometimes people resign and other people come in. So the number is changing a bit.

Veronika Šprincová,  photo: Jana Přinosilová,  Czech Radio
“Now I think it’s about 22 percent of women deputies in the lower house and it’s even lower in the upper house, because there’s a different electoral system – it’s a majoritarian one and that is less favourable for women.”

Though the number of female lawmakers may not be high today, the situation has improved slightly since the 1990s, says Šprincová.

“During state socialism there were gender quotas for women. There had to be a certain number of women, and not only women but also workers and so on and so on.

“So it was state policy to have women in decision-making.

“After the revolution these rules were of course cancelled, because they were considered not democratic. There was free competition within parties and of course it was less favourable for women.

“So directly after the revolution, during the construction of democracy, it was only about 15 percent women in politics, especially in Parliament.

“So it’s slowly getting better but, you know, from 15 to 20 or 22 percent is still not huge progress.”

Petra Jelínková has frontline experience in this field, having been active with the Green Party at district level in Prague in the past. She says Czech politics can be a hostile environment for women.

Chamber of Deputies of the Czech Republic,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“What can be really tough is the fact that so many people around you try to discourage you.

“There are so many invisible things that can discourage you or make you just feel bad about being politically active.

“Some of them are very obvious. It’s the fact that women who are openly active in publicly life are sometimes threatened or ridiculed.

“This can happen offline but very often online these days. Female politicians or activists often receive really disgusting messages. And it can sometimes even be dangerous.”

Jelínková says that other pressures can also come into play.

“There can be some stupid remarks you have to face every day.

“There can be some problems for women, because they are very often in the traditional role of care-giver in the Czech Republic.

Petra Jelínková,  photo: archive of Petra Jelínková
“It’s mostly women who take care of children or their parents as they are getting older.

“The typical situation for a woman starting her political career would be that she’s doing her job, she also has her family to take care of and besides these two shifts she has a third one, which is going to party meetings, taking part in local events and political events.

“So it can be very time-consuming.”

According to Veronika Šprincová of Forum 50%, sexism is deep-rooted in Czech society, with adverts for all manner of products often featuring women’s bodies – and this situation is reflected in the political arena.

“Sometimes women are told to go back to their kitchens and are told that they are not suitable for politics.

“So there are these kinds of criticisms, these kinds of prejudices.

“This not a Czech specialty, but women are very likely to be assessed based on their appearance: what they wear, how they wear it and so on.

“Also they are very likely assessed as a representative of women, and if one woman just makes a mistake or does something wrong, it’s very likely generalised to women in politics as such.”

Petra Jelínková shares one amusing, if dispiriting, example of sexism that she encountered at a political meeting.

“Very often women are asked about things that have nothing relevant to their political opinions.

“Let me give you an example. I remember I went to a public discussion on social policy and the very first question I received from the host was, So, it must be really hard for your husband – when do you do the ironing for him? Do you even iron his shirts?

“I was really shocked [laughs], because of course nobody asked my male colleagues on the panel this.

“And when I replied that I had no husband and no iron at home [laughs] the host was really shocked.

Jana Spekhorstová  (right) with daughter,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“So it’s these little obstacles that you have to deal with every day.”

Jelínková also says that in Czech politics many important decisions are made over a beer after formal meetings have ended. This puts women – who often need to get home earlier – at a disadvantage.

Jana Spekhorstová is a member of the European Union of Women, a group linked to TOP 09, and ran unsuccessfully in elections to the European Parliament with Jaromír Štětina’s Europe Together party.

She says she has come around to the view that Czech parties need to introduce a quota system for female candidates.

“Five years ago I thought quotas were unnecessary. But then I compared experiences with colleagues from Europe.

“They described, for instance, the situation in Germany around the year 1970, when it was just like here in the Czech Republic today.

“Without quotas, we wouldn’t have Angela Merkel or Ursula von der Leyen.

“So yes, I’m a big supporter of quotas.”

Veronika Šprincová’s Forum 50% are firm advocates of quotas. She rejects the argument that they too are a form of discrimination, as they may artificially block the path of talented men.

“I don’t think that the current situation is ideal in the way that people would be chosen on the basis of their skills, of their abilities, of their previous political work.

Markéta Pekarová Adamová | Photo: Czech Radio
“Other factors are part of the decision as to who will be on a ballot and in what place he or she will be.

“We don’t live in an ideal world. Because if merit were the only factor, I believe that there would be many more women candidates and many more women elected.”

Petra Jelínková, who is currently involved in the foundation of a new party named Budoucnost (The Future), says if there were more women in Czech politics it would also benefit the country’s male population.

“If you look at the statistics, they show quite clearly that those countries where women are in charge of politics as well, together with men, they have lower rates of corruption, they have better general results and it’s good for all groups in society – it’s not just at the gender level.

“The more diversity you have in policy making, the more chances you have that people will be involved and their opinions will be represented.

“So it’s good for everyone.”

Veronika Šprincová says she takes some heart from the fact that Markéta Pekarová Adamová has become leader of TOP 09. She also says the ruling ANO party have been relatively strong on promoting women to senior positions. But overall the head of Forum 50% does not foresee major progress any time soon.

Zuzana Čaputová,  photo: Jirka Dl,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0
“I don’t see any political force on the current political map which would have this topic on their agenda.

“So there is no pressure. Not from the general public and not from politicians themselves.”

For her part Petra Jelínková believes things are beginning to move in the right direction.

“We can see that there are more female role models. And I can see that especially with the younger generation. They don’t get discouraged and they can see that women can be successful.

“And it is really important to see that a female politician is not just a token, it’s not just an isolated, exceptional phenomenon.

“So I think that with every new woman who’s a journalist, politician or activist and speaks loudly in public the chances are much bigger for more women to join.”

Unlike neighbouring Slovakia, for instance, the Czech Republic has never had a female head of government or state. But Jelínková thinks this too could change.

“I certainly can imagine a female president and a female prime minister in Czechia. We still need to see who the candidates are for the upcoming presidential election.

“But if we look at the example of Slovakia, with Zuzana Čaputová, I think that we’re also ready for a female president who’s sensitive to all these important things like gender issues, the environment and minorities and their rights.

“This is something that we can hope for and hopefully we’ll have an amazing female prime minister and president soon.”