Interview: Aneta Sobotka, “Elles Sans Frontieres”, refers to the old-fashioned restrictions on women’s access to the labour market

I joined “Elles sans frontiers” ASBL in April 2019, so I’m a fresh Member but I feel that it has already become an important part of my life. I had known ASBL from organizing Women’s Congress in Brussels – a big event well-known in a Polish community living in Belgium. I was really impressed by the Congresses – so many great, intelligent and competent women in one place! After participation in two editions of Congresses, I decided to be more active in the field of feminism and to engage in the organization of the V Congress, which was focused on the feminist economics – gender pay gap, women’s entrepreneurship, family and social policy, sexual and economic empowerment. The topic of women’s participation in the labour market, I consider as particularly important – I work at the European Commission in the Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs and Social Inclusion. At the Congress, I was responsible for co-organizing the session on how state can support women to ensure work-life balance. My other responsibility was organizing a book stand at the Congress market. We sell reportages, novels and science literature about women. Seeing from inside how the Congress is organized was impressive. Working with a group of such highly motivated women were very satisfying and personally rewarding.

Russian list of banned professions was introduced in Soviet times, in 1974 to protect women’s safety and reproductive health – an important asset of communist society. The list was updated by President Putin in 2000. Currently the list of prohibited professions in Russia covers 456 jobs! That is a huge limitation in the access to labour market, which significantly affects gender pay gap – in Russia it is particularly high – around 30%. After new regulation, which will come into force in 2021, women will have an opportunity to choose among more than 350 jobs previously restricted, as truck drivers or train operators. Unfortunately, the reduced list of banned professions will still exist, limited to professions requiring heavy lifting.

Banning performance of particular professions in the name of women’s health protection, is nothing more than labour market discrimination and treating women as incubators who exist only to produce more citizens, treating like creatures unable to make decisions how they want to live and what is important for them. This is a very similar case to banning abortion – state, represented mainly by men, controls women and restricts women’s reproductive rights and free will. There are no rational arguments to keep women out of certain jobs but there are many against it. Of course, besides the most important one – human rights, there are increased economic gains for the country resulting from higher employment rate.

Currently there are more than 100 countries forbidding women certain professions – most of these countries are in Africa, Asia and South America. Poland, my home country, changed regulations very recently, in 2017. Similar to Russia, we had old regulations banning women to perform many jobs on the ground of ‘protection women’s health’. Change of regulations was induced by the EU DIRECTIVE on the implementation of the principle of equal opportunities and equal treatment of men and women in matters of employment and occupation. However, in Poland there are still some regulations banning certain types of job for pregnant and latescent women. What is surprising, even in Europe we have countries banning jobs for women, e.g. in France, women are not allowed to perform jobs which require carrying more than 25 kilograms! Even if women on average have less physical strength, it does not mean that because of being a woman, you are not able to carry 25 kg. Unfortunately, in many countries, regulations are stricter than in France, and employment discrimination significantly harms economic situation and life chances of women.

First, we should raise awareness of the problem. Many people are not aware than in modern economies in XXI century, so old-fashioned restrictions have persisted. There is a great report of World Bank describing types of employment bans in different countries. Operating on data is the first step to tackle the problem. Then there is much fieldwork needed – mainly by local feminist activists pushing the governments to change the regulation. In my opinion what could be quite successful, is to inform certain countries how much their economies loose limiting women access to labour market. Economic arguments can be understood well even in the most traditional societies.

Aneta Sobotka, Elles Sans Frontieres