Although the Prime Minister of Slovenia is a woman, the way to preeminent political roles is not yet paved to women. Gender stereotypes still affect the image and the possibilities of women in several domains, but, albeit slow, there are clear improvements.

Women’s participation in Slovene politics

10 min read

“Slovene politics is no longer a boys-only game”, said the Slovene prime minister Alenka Bratušek on 8.3.2013. 

Slovenia is one of three EU countries with a female prime minister. The last parliamentary elections saw 34% of parliamentary seats taken by women. There are currently 31 women sitting in the National Assembly. The 2011 elections pushed Slovenia among the top ranking countries in terms of female participation, right behind the Nordic countries, Germany and Spain. The results were undoubtedly influenced by the introduction of a quota mechanism to increase women participation in politics – a mechanism that has proven effective. The current government of Slovenia has two female ministers, whereas the previous term saw female ministers holding offices in even the most traditionally male ministries such as defence and internal affairs, proving that even the staunchest strongholds of male power are not inaccessible to women. However, women – who make up the majority of the population - are still underrepresented in all areas of political decision-making: in elected and appointed positions, on national as well as local levels. The uneven participation of both genders is also reflected in the economy.

 “When I grow up, I will be the president”

This was the answer given by a young girl, who attended last year’s national youth parliament, when asked about the job she would like to have when she grows up. “Parliament day event for children” is a project which has been taking place in Slovenia since 1990. The interesting thing about it is that it is mostly girls attending its sessions. Youth parliaments are programs aimed at educating children and youths for democracy. They took place in schools at local and regional level and finalists take part in the national youth parliament. The disproportionally large participation of girls in them indicates the remarkable interest Slovenian girls show in politics. It is also why last year’s youth parliament elected a female president, with two of three members of the working presidency being women. The themes discussed by them were love, sexuality, homosexuality and gender equality.

Girls participating in the Youth parliament believe that each and every one of them can become a member of parliament or prime minister. Their large interest in politics thus raises a serious question: how is it that women seem to lose interest in politics as they grow older?

There is no single answer to this complex question.  Traditional gender roles learned within the family but also in society still shape the future of girls and boys. Sexism and discriminatory practices are first taught to children at home and are, for the most part, reinforced in school. The contents of educational programmes as well as direct relations between the sexes in the classroom and during extracurricular activities form images and gender roles that are still mostly stereotypical.

Even the national survey of youth reading literacy shows traces of discriminatory use of language; we can read in its findings that girls are better students, because they are more diligent. Boys on the other hand are intelligent but less obedient.

Primary school electives also offer girls clubs that are subject to stubborn convictions as to what is appropriate and proper for girls and what for boys. The educational system therefore often reproduces stereotypical social roles of women and men that are reflected in educational content and programs, as well as in career and study choices. Socialisation into traditional gender social roles is also evident in career and study orientations. On a high school level, girls are more likely to choose general-educational programs and programs that educate for so-called “female” professions, whereas boys are more likely to choose technical professions. On a university level, female students are more likely to study social, medical and educational programs, whereas male students dominate in technical programs, particularly engineering, construction, computer engineering and electrical engineering. We can therefore see that girls are still steered toward professions believed to be closer the so-called “female nature” and are consequently less paid. As a result fields such as education, educational training, nursery as well as journalism have become highly feminised. There is a major structural inequality within the teaching profession. Slovene kindergartens and primary schools are dominated by female employees, who thus reproduce the stereotyped patterns of gender roles within their profession.

Equal opportunities of education regardless of gender have become a priority in Slovenian policy-making. Despite that, there have not been any concrete measures and guidelines taken for teachers to implement gender equality education in all subjects. Additionally, a standardised procedure to verify textbooks and contents in terms of gender equality is yet to be implemented.

We are also faced with a serious problem of sexist representation of women in the media. We are witnessing an aggressive propagation of sexualised images of women’s and girls’ bodies. In secondary schools, as well as in the higher grades of elementary schools, we see girls believing that their personal assertion has to go hands in hands with their sexualisation, because that is the message they get from ads. This also happens to be the strength assigned to women in everyday life. All across Slovenia we can see billboards that would find no room in many countries. This is hypocrisy, because on the one hand we talk about the sexes being equal in Slovenia and on the other we allow women to be represented as objects. A publicly highly regarded competition for young women in science is also very telling of this situation, as it is conducted in cooperation with one of the world's biggest cosmetic brands.

Young women carrying the burden of the crisis

Even though Slovene women are, on average, better-educated then Slovene men, they are subject to various discriminatory practices when they enter the job market. Their employment prospects are lower and occupy lower-paid jobs. The economic crisis has also become a convenient excuse to re-patriarchate the job market. A study has shown that young educated women have lowered their expectations and are waiting for better days. The percentage of young, highly educated, women that do not enter the labour market at all is steadily rising. They stay at home or make their living in ways that are not in any official registry, they agree to uncertain forms of employment and to indecently low wages. They are satisfied with almost anything, just so they can have something and that is not right. In a context of increasing social exclusion, we can expect that women will once again be forced to hide away in the private sphere where they will mostly be limited to carrying out unpaid work.

Inequality is also present in career advancement; a large percentage of women are highly educated but do not enter the top positions of power and decision-making in their professions. This sort of gender inequality is in many areas associated with the so-called “glass ceiling” effect, where “male social networks” protect their established positions and prevent the advancement of women. A male superior is still the established norm. We can see considerably less professional and successful men overtake highly successful women. Apart from segregation by scientific fields, where women dominate medical and social sciences and men dominate natural and technical sciences we also have vertical gender segregation which can be observed in an extremely low percentage of women it top science and research positions. Female scientists and researchers also face various, oftentimes concealed, obstacles that hinder their work and promotion in their professions.

Another telling fact is that on average employed women spend an additional 42 hours a week doing housework, whereas men spend only 28 hours on the same chores. We are still faced with patriarchal constructions of femininity and the ideology of domestic work. Women are also the ones in the family who mostly take time of work to take care of a family member. Traditional patterns of care for the family are also systemically transmitted, with the prevalent practice of entrusting children to their mothers in divorces. Special attention was recently given to a proposed new law on parenting that wanted to encourage active fatherhood, which was ultimately rejected. Even the general public was opposed to the law, which faced resistance not only among men but also among women.

We support women, but do not vote for them

Given that the percentage of women in politics and in the public sphere is always based on the actions of power structures (both formal and symbolic), women in Slovenia who decide to enter politics have, due to our electoral system, minimal chances to be elected to public office and to attain the highest positions in government. Sexism or the non-admission of women into politics are practically written into our election system. We have a lot of women in political parties, but not on candidates lists; and when in candidates lists, they tend to be put in position where their chances of being elected are practically non-existent.

Another phenomenon is also detectable: people support the entrance of women into politics, but do not vote for them. A woman is still considered a member of the “second sex”, and therefore, the second choice. They are mainly given the chance to run for high offices when there are no interested men around, or if no man would be electable to it.

The more patriarchal a society is, the more truth there is to the rule that a woman will get power only when two men cannot agree on who will take it. A similar thing happens in Slovene politics. It is symptomatic for a woman to become prime minister at a time of economic and political crisis. 

A female prime minister

It is true that Slovenia has a female prime minister and that Alenka Bratušek’s appointment to the office was a landmark for Slovene politics and gender relations. Nevertheless, her election leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste. Slovenia’s first female prime minister is definitely a herald of something new, but we cannot ignore the fact that her come to power was accompanied by widespread scepticism and, ultimately misogynist assessments that “her term will be shorter than the length of her skirt”.

Considerably more time was spent on discussions regarding her allegedly inappropriate personal wardrobe than on her duties and responsibilities as prime minister. Statements that reduce a woman’s success to the length of her skirt naturally point to low political culture but are also a mirror of a society that elected such political representatives.

It is also true that Slovenia’s conservative right-wing party that advocates Christian values also has a female president. It is however paradoxical that Ljudmila Novak epitomises the traditional definition of a woman – a married mother of three, who also fervently opposes the new family Code and the rights of same-sex couples, while at the same time raising the image of a patriarchal family on a pedestal.  Her wardrobe, naturally, is not under discussion.

In recent years the National Assembly, Slovenia’s temple of democracy, witnessed a number of hostile statements, rough public and personal discrediting aimed at female ministers and members of parliament. From vulgarly bizarre ideas about examining crotches, to divorce proceedings while a woman still cooks and statements about an MP having certain views because she is blond; the list goes on. All of it is, of course, open misogynist rhetoric that paternalistically informs girls and women of their alleged place in society.

It seems that in Slovenia men in the public sphere are perceived as people, whereas female politicians, businesswomen and scientists are primarily (and often only) perceived as women. They are analysed as women, criticised as women and insulted as women.

Despite many particular and systemic attempts to re-patriarchate Slovene society, the position of women in politics is slowly, but surely improving. In order to insure a greater presence of women in politics we must firstly provide mechanisms, from legislation to special measures in political parties to enable women easier access to and participation in politics. Apart from that, the broader social and political environment in which they decide to play an active role in politics must also favour female politicians. It is also important that more and more women discover that politics is too important a matter to be left to the management and administration of a small number of men. Slovene girls today know that they can be elected to parliament and can express their views, that they can become members of parliament and can ultimately be prime minister. Role models are important. That is why we may not be too far from our first female President of the Republic.