Why do so few Czech women want to be in politics?

Chamber of Deputies of the Czech Republic

Czech women remain conspicuously absent from most seats of power in Czechia. The country has never had a female PM or president and NGOs have repeatedly highlighted the lack of women's representation in national politics. Moreover, female politicians are often targets of verbal abuse simply because of their sex. I spoke to Lenka Hrbková from Masaryk University in Brno to find out more about the challenges that Czech female politicians face.

“The typical types of attacks against female politicians are remarks about their appearance, intelligence but what is also pretty common is some form of sexualized violence, pornographic harassment and content, threats of rape, threats of sexual violence –attacks that are gendered.”

I assume we are talking about attacks on social media from the broad public. If that is the case, what is the attitude of Czech male politicians to their female colleagues? Do they not occasionally put them down in the same manner and add fuel to the fire, so to speak?

Lenka Hrbková | Photo: Syri Institute

“Well, in the past, some female politicians really reported that some of their male counterparts sometimes acted disrespectfully. We do not have any systematic data on this, but we can still see some inappropriate gender behavior. For example, the leader of the opposition Freedom and Direct Democracy Party Tomio Okamura recently criticized the chair of the Chamber of Deputies saying that since she does not have children herself she is not competent enough to talk about related policy issues. But, generally speaking, I think that most men in politics usually condemn such inappropriate behavior in communication with their female colleagues. However, they very often argue that they too face a lot of threats and attacks. But, as I said, there is a gender aspect to this whole problem and the threats and attacks that women face are qualitatively different.”

Are the media beyond reproach in this respect?

“The media certainly contribute to some sort of biases against female politicians because they reproduce some gendered stereotypes in politics. So in this way they do play a role in the hard time female politicians face.”

Can you be more specific?

“Well, the media often portray female politicians as women rather than politicians–they comment on their appearance, how they dress, their hairstyle and so on. There is also research that suggests that the media are more critical towards female politicians than towards male politicians. So all these little biases can create obstacles and barriers for women in politics.”

So women in politics have to behave like men in order to survive – is that the case?

“That is something we tend to believe. We have this image of politics as something dirty and tough and that you need to be rough to survive – that is the dominant narrative. But we have seen in other countries, like Finland, New Zealand or even Slovakia, that it can be different, that women can bring a different style of politics, being authentically more kind and caring. So I would not say that it is a necessity to accept this more masculine and tough way of doing politics.”

How well are Czech female politicians fending off these attacks? Olga Richterová from the Pirate Party recently won a lawsuit against a member of the public for slander. Did that send the right signal to others?

Olga Richterová | Photo: Czech Radio

“Yes, I think that this lawsuit was extremely important. It sent an important signal that this kind of behavior violates the norms of this society and it gives a signal to the perpetrators that this is not ok and that it is criminal conduct. However it is not very common for politicians in the Czech Republic to  turn to the law enforcement authorities. I think they should do so more often. There was another very important lawsuit in which the Constitutional Court decided in favour of Klara Kalibová, a well known human rights advocate, ruling that these harmful attacks are a criminal offense, and that as such they should be handled by criminal courts - that they are not just a misdemeanor.  I think this gives us a signal that the institutions of the state take this problem seriously and that they could be addressed more often by politicians.”

So why do female politicians not do so more often? Turn to the police and sue someone?

“I think it is because we have this narrative of politics being dirty and tough and it is all part of the job. I think it is important to say here that men in politics are also frequent targets of such attacks and we have come to accept that as a natural part of politics -that you have to deal with it if you want to do the job. I think that is the main reason why female politicians do not address the problem more and do not hand over these cases to the law enforcement authorities more often.”

Photo: GDJ,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

Is this situation putting young women off from entering politics?

“There are more factors at play. There is a generational aspect to it –we know that younger people generally participate in this form of institutional politics through parties and elections less than the older generation. There is also a gender aspect to this – we know that women have lower levels of political ambition. This is not specifically a Czech situation –it applies to other countries as well. For example, women need much more encouragement from political party officials to run for office than men do and we know that this gap in political ambition is not a natural thing. We know that in childhood and early adolescence girls and boys have a more gender-balanced view of the world. But as they age, girls tend to have much lower ambitions to take part in political life than men. So we know that this is a result of socialization. So yes, I think that women can be put off from participating in politics by all these things that we are speaking about.”

Are they more likely to enter politics on a lower level and participate in local government?

“More likely than at the national level, yes, but even on the local level they are in a minority compared to the number of men.”

Do Czech female politicians have a chance to get to the top – to serve in posts such as PM or president? Or are they only allowed to go so far and serve the party as a sign of “gender equality” and good PR?

Miroslava Němcová | Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio

“When we look at the numbers the answer is clear – no, they do not have much of a chance to get to the top. In the history of the Czech Republic there have been zero female prime ministers, zero presidents, zero leaders of major political parties with one brief exception, that of Miroslava Němcová in the Civic Democratic Party. We do not have a gender-balanced government, only 26 percent of our MPs are currently women –which is the highest number that we have ever had. So I don’t think that Czech political parties can talk about gender equality in Czech politics. Of course, advocates of the status quo argue that men and women have equal opportunities and that anybody can run for politics and participate in government if they wish to do so. However, we know that that is simply not true, that it is much more complicated and that women do face systematic and informal barriers in their political careers so the opportunities for women are really much smaller.”

Is the attitude of the general public really accepting or is it marked by latent prejudices?

“Well, it seems that the public is not explicitly prejudiced or biased against women in political office. We can see in public opinion surveys that people tend to approve of women as political leaders. But there are many implicit and less visible obstacles such as the stereotypes that I previously spoke about. Women are not naturally associated with public office and leadership roles and therefore they need to try to overcome these unfavorable gender expectations and they need to try harder. And we know that women usually need to be more qualified and have better previous careers to have the same political opportunities as their male counterparts. So I would say there is not an explicit prejudice against women in politics, but women come up against more obstacles in these little implicit biases that they need to overcome.”

When can we expect a change for the better? When will this country have a female prime minister or president?

Danuše Nerudová,  2023 presidential candidate | Photo: Martin Vaniš,  Radio Prague International

“Well, progress is very slow, given the fact that it has been more than 100 years since women were granted the right to vote and that only 26 percent of our MPs are women. I would say that it will really take decades -unless some sort of measure that would support women in politics is adopted by political institutions in this country and presently I do not expect that to happen.”

Can such a change really be enforced? Would it work?

“Well, it depends. You can enforce a gender quota in political parties and we know from foreign examples that if the quota system is designed well it can work. The quota is not a universal recipe to solve the problem of underrepresentation of women in politics but it can certainly be a positive impulse for general change in our society and in our politics.”