[Focus Article] – Overview of the gender dimension in the Western Balkans

Gender equality and women’s empowerment are fundamental to sustainable development. Gender equality underpins the prosperity and well-being of economies and societies. Half of the world’s available human capital has a huge bearing on the equitable growth, competitiveness and future readiness of economies and businesses.

The major international human rights conventions and EU treaties recognize equality between women and men as a fundamental right and a common value. The importance of gender equality has been emphasized in various EU policy documents, including in European Commission progress reports for the Western Balkan economies. During the accession talks, the EU  further monitors the implementation of these fundamental rights in candidate countries.

Achieving gender equality in the Western Balkans (WB6) has been a continual challenge yet the impact of a possible future EU Membership is positive: the Western Balkans have taken steps to advance women’s rights in recent years and have largely adopted and amended also relevant legislation (e.g. criminal and labour laws), now broadly in line with the highest EU and international standards. The WB6 have also set up special gender-equality bodies, national strategies and action plans, and gender equality has been included in the national European integration plans.

From a macro perspective point of view, the legislative and policy frameworks for gender equality in the Western Balkan economies are good. However, institutional and organizational leadership and entrepreneurial capacities must be strengthened to improve their implementation. In practical terms, significant limitations remain: gender equality is generally pushed down the agenda, with attention going mainly to the economic and political situation. A hiatus between policies and practices is frequently the consequence of a lack of political will and limited investments in human and financial resources for promoting women’s empowerment. Other factors are structural impediments such as poor understanding of gender equality concepts, a lack of evidence based on sex- and age-disaggregated data and weak institutional oversight

Gender equality concerns not only women but also rather the whole society and gender mainstreaming, as the process of incorporating the gender perspective into a structure, benefits men just as it does women.

Despite progress in promoting gender equality in the labour market, the region is missing out on its human capital potential. 40% of the total employed in the Western Balkans are women but more than 23% of them hold insecure jobs. Only 27.5% of business owners in the Western Balkans are women, and just 14.2% of companies’ top managers are female. The share of women in STEM occupations is 14% due to gender stereotypes, pay gaps and gender bias that prevent many girls in the region from choosing education in STEM fields. 

In such a context, the Regional Cooperation Coouncil (RCC) intends to improve the situation, empower women in the region and make their ideas and businesses a market competitive category. Over the past years, RCC has collaborated also with the UNDP tackling various development issues, promoting effective regional cooperation and interconnected standard-setting. These efforts have laid the foundation for even greater collaboration between RCC and UNDP to leverage all sources and expertise to advance women’s economic participation and expand economic opportunities in the Western Balkans.

A joint initiative was launched in December 2020. Entitled ‘Women’s Economic Empowerment: Areas for joint actions in the Western Balkans“ the RCC/UNDP initiative is aimed to enhance collaboration among different stakeholders and underpin systemic change in addressing gender inequalities and co-designing initiatives on women’s economic empowerment. The objective is to encourage reforms that will foster women’s participation and leadership in the economy which would lead to reducing gender gaps and development of the region, including:

•    Increase in women’s labour force participation and entrepreneurship could result in increase in Western Balkan GDP by up to 20%
•    Women’s leadership in politics and economy will boost innovation and growth
•    Higher women’s representation equals higher quality of governance
•    Higher number of women in companies’ top-management leads to sustained profitable growth

The initiative has set five key priorities: accelerate women’s entrepreneurship, reduce gender gaps in digitalisation and STEM, recognise and redistribute unpaid work and invest in the care economy, promote women’s leadership and access to decent work, and transform the public and private sectors to deliver gender equality.

Prior to pandemic, almost two-thirds of working-age women in the Western Balkans were either unemployed or outside the labour force. Unlocking the potential of half the population is not just a moral obligation – it is an economic and security imperative. So, hire women, promote women and invest in women – that is our future and our only future,” said Majlinda Bregu, Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), during the event launching the initiative. “Western Balkans is not a rich region, that’s why we need the contribution of everybody to uplift our economies. Today more than ever our region needs skilful men and women to provide light and hope… Empowering women economically is not a zero-sum game in which women win and men lose. No, it empowers societies” concluded Bregu. 

Closing the gender gap in research and innovation

Gender equality in research and innovation (R&I) is a powerful lever with which to truly ‘mobilise knowledge for a better and more sustainable future’ and to increase the effectiveness of research systems and ensure that the research produced is excellent, accessible, and open. Organisations that allow inequality to exist are not performing to their full potential. This is what stated in a 2020 position paper, by the ERAC Standing Working Group on Gender in Research and Innovation, outlining recommendations for the future of gender equality in the European Research Area (ERA), which build on analyses of the current state of its implementation.

As mentioned in the RCC/UNDP document “Women’s Economic Empowerment: Areas for joint actions in the Western Balkans” the digital technologies have impacted everyone’s live significantly, are transforming the labour market, changing the way businesses and political networks function, and affecting education and other social spheres. This can worsen pre-existing gender-based inequalities. Nevertheless it also offers opportunities to reduce gender inequalities. Making use of these opening spaces requires urgent measures to ensure that workplace strategies and policies are driven by gender-equality norms, and to equip women with the skills to deal with the data and digital transition.

In the Western Balkan region, the share of women in STEM occupations is as low as 14 percent. Widespread gender pay gaps, unchallenged gender stereotypes, gender bias in technology (e.g., in design, production and research) characterize the tech sector in general, resulting in economic losses. Gender inequality is also highly visible in asset ownership. Worldwide, some 327 million fewer women than men have a smartphone. Moreover, only 48 percent of women use the internet, compared to 58 percent of men. Women-owned start-ups receive 23 percent less funding and are 30 percent less likely to have a positive exit compared to male-owned businesses.

To close the gender gap and empower women economically while promoting gender equality in society the RCC/UNDP propose the following action points:

1. Encourage employers and policymakers to adopt an ecosystem approach to assess how women are progressing along the digital inclusion continuum and enable women to shape digital, financial and property products, services and policies.

2. Develop a sub-regional online advocacy platform to promote gender equality in STEM fields engaging partners in multilateral organizations, private sector, universities and women’s networks.

3. Promote formal and non-formal STEM-related education among girls and women.

4. Introduce education, training and mentorship programmes on the digital economy for women entrepreneurs including traineeship programmes for young women offering digital spaces, exposure to leadership debates and innovation opportunities.

5. Introduce gender dimensions into policies and systems for automatization, digitalization, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies and ensure women’s participation in designing, developing and managing STEM products/services.

6. Introduce measures to accelerate women’s empowerment in the online economy and develop affirmative measures for work-from-home opportunities – such as online mentorship.

7. Support women’s entrepreneurship in STEM, by facilitating access to online networks for mentoring, coaching and provision of business support services, access to start-up finance, and innovative web-based instruments for women entrepreneurs to access financial capital.

8. Introduce measures to support older women to overcome the digital gender gap and benefit from employment opportunities.

9. Reduce gender discrimination in recruitment, promotions and gender pay gap in STEM occupations, supporting businesses in adopting strategies and policies that reduce discriminatory practices and promote and expand women’s participation in STEM.

Coming back to the EU perspective of the Western Balkans and the dynamics of the EU integration process, the 2020 Western Balkans Summit of Sofia brought about the endorsement of a Common Regional Market (CRM) 2021-2024 Action Plan by the Western Balkan Leaders. The Action Plan aims to increase the attractiveness and competitiveness of the region and sets out a transformative agenda with also activities dedicated to encouraging women to pursue entrepreneurship careers, increase their participation in education and STEM careers, take part in digital upskilling, establish women entrepreneurs’ networks and women-led innovative teams.

The importance of establishing a Regional Network of professionals, activists, entrepreneurs, policy makers and enthusiasts for advancing the status of Women in STEM in the Western Balkans is also confirmed by the study Mapping of gender-related policies, programmes and mechanisms on gender disparity in STEM in Western Balkans

According to this study, all economies have very well-developed gender equality policy, almost fully aligned with the EU directives. In some of them the education policy is gendered, but all lack focus on STEM and therefore promotion of women in STEM is missing entirely. The document also states that the existing gender mechanisms are not used as a basis for specific actions and interventions for achieving gender equality in STEM. None of the initiatives with civil society and business in STEM are coordinated while very few STEM initiatives are already engendered and are specifically promoting women in STEM. RCC analysts confirm finally that the European integration process has provided a new impetus for reforming the field of science and research, primarily through smart specialisation and innovation, setting the basis for development of new institutional framework for science, technology and innovation development.

In such a framework the study puts forward also some recommendations including the support to policy reform where STEM will be specifically targeted and analysed, coupled with continuous monitoring and evaluation from gender perspective to address disparity between women and men in STEM, as well as the support to gender mainstreaming of good practices of relevant CSOs, academia and business initiatives for STEM education and increase their gender awareness.

The RCC observed best practices in Serbia, where science and technology policy is gender mainstreamed and innovation funding is monitored from gender perspective, and in North Macedonia, where the Innovation and technology fund supports specifically women owned/led innovative businesses. In Kosovo*, the Millennium Foundation supports women initiatives in technology and science through entrepreneurship, scholarship and internship scheme. Finally, noteworthy initiatives are linked to different associations promoting women in STEM, such as the Network of Women in STEM in Albania, IT girls in Bosnia and HerzegovinaWomen in Tech North Macedonia, Committee for Women in Mathematics in Montenegro, and the Women in Engineering – Affinity Group in Serbia.

In conclusion, the study confirms the importance of establishing a Regional Network of professionals, activists, entrepreneurs, policy makers and enthusiasts for advancing the status of Women in STEM in the Western Balkans. The Network of Women in STEM should in particular focus on: (i) implementing campaigns that provide visibility to female role models in STEM; (ii) providing networking opportunities for policy makers, STEM professionals, educators and researchers to exchange experience and decrease gender gap in STEM; and (iii) developing mentoring initiatives and encouraging women to enter career in STEM fields.

The Network will be an effective tool of empowering women in STEM, boosting their confidence and self-esteem and providing assistance in their career development, but it will also provide policy advice for development of a comprehensive policy and institutional framework for bridging the gender gap in STEM, retaining women in science, technology and industry, and encouraging their leadership. The RCC is going to launch such network in first months of 2021.

Main Source: RCC news and documents

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