Greek women in crisis
On International Women’s Day on Wednesday, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s Twitter account wished for the women of the world who are fighting for their rights “strength and luck.” He mentioned the elderly ladies on the island of Lesvos who took refugee babies in their hands to feed them and Konstantina Kouneva, the historian from Bulgaria, who worked as a cleaner and had sulfuric acid thrown on her face in 2008, as “faces of fighting women.”
The SYRIZA-ANEL government does recognise that more needs to be done in terms of gender equality in Greece. Legislation outlining the equality of the sexes is being prepared and will soon be brought to Parliament for a vote and sexist language removed from all public documents.
The coalition has a greater commitment to battle discrimination against women in the workplace and recognises equal rights, regardless of gender or race. However, the reality for women in the Greek workplace is appalling. Women are more likely to be unemployed, to be paid less and to be fired, especially after they have had children.
Unemployment figures show that 27.5 percent of women are out of work compared to 19.4 percent of men. Of the long-term unemployed, meaning those who have been looking for work for longer than 12 months, 62.35 percent are women. This is equivalent to more than half a million women. However, informal unemployment for women is estimated to be much higher. The majority of women are in the informal economy, caring for others, doing domestic work, and working in lower-paid, lower-skill occupations with little or no social protection.
For example, Nitsa Petrou, a 70-year old who lives in Athens is supported by her husband who is an accountant. She spends her time looking after her 4-year old grandson, while her daughter is at work. She then goes home to conduct household duties for herself and her husband, and in the evenings, she would take a dinner plate and carry it across the street to spend some time with an 85-year old lady who lives by herself.
Linda Kyriakou, 64 years old, a former ceramic artist and painter, lives in Crete and for the last 5 years, has been caring for an elderly lady of 90 years old. She gets paid 450 euros a month for a 20-hour week. She does not have health insurance or pension coverage.
This work is undocumented, unpaid and often unappreciated. It is no wonder then that elderly women are more at risk of poverty. The risk of poverty rate for women aged 65 is 15.2 percent, compared to 11.9 percent for men. It increases to 18.1 percent for women aged 75, compared to 11.2 percent for men of the same age group.
The wage gap between women and men in Greece is 15 percent. This would appear better than the global average of 23 percent but in certain sectors, the inequalities are startling. The occupational group with the greatest difference between the two sexes are health professionals (doctors) where the wage gap is 44 percent. In CEOs and commercial director positions, men earn 42% more than women.
Young mums are another social group marked by discrimination and unfair treatment. Although the law protects maternity leave and return to work, norms and culture in the private sector lead to mothers leaving work, never to return. Pregnant women in Greece are entitled to 4 months of maternity leave covered by the employer (2 months prior to giving birth and 2 months afterwards). Additionally, they have a right to take a further 6 months of maternity leave, receiving a basic benefit from the state (400 euros a month), but most working women would consider this not enough.
Most pregnant women try to work up to their due date, in order to take the leave of 4 months after their baby is born. As a result, they are overworked and exhausted in their last months of their pregnancy. This was the case of Maria Pella who ended up in the hospital with exhaustion in her seventh month.
Maria had been working as head of finance in a large multinational advertising company for 10 years, when she became pregnant with her first child. She returned to work as normal after taking a total of 10 months of maternity leave (the 4 months plus the 6 provided by the state). A few years later, when she became pregnant with her second child, she was told by her boss that “he did not support her decision to have a family.” She was subsequently demoted to a lower position, compromising her skills and experience. As soon as her second child was one year old, she was fired, as the law allows. She has since been a stay-at-home mum.
Although the Greek laws protect women, inequality is linked to deeply entrenched discriminatory social norms, where the socially constructed gender roles of ‘male breadwinners’ and ‘female carers’ pertain. Employers do not support flexible working - part-time work is usually equivalent to work with no pension and health cover and looking after children or the elderly is still considered lightweight work (“Why are you tired? You spend the day with the kids”).
The global community increasingly recognises that women’s position in the economy needs to be empowered not only because it’s socially desirable but because it is an economic imperative.
According to research by the UK Women’s Budget Group for the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), investing public funds in childcare and elderly care services would be more effective in reducing public deficits and debt than austerity policies. It would reduce unemployment, increase earnings, boost economic growth and foster gender equality.
Nothing would seem more appropriate and at the same more improbable in the case of Greece.
*Dr Elli Siapkidou is a freelance, independent researcher and writer. Her research interests include Greece under austerity, the Eurozone and EU institutions, EU democracy and human rights (women's rights, refugee rights), inequality and the effect of neoliberal policies in societies.