Emerging from the authoritarian regimes of their communist era, Eastern European countries sought the wealth and protection of the European Union. In the 1990s, the EU did not entirely trust the governments of Eastern Europe. Many of these governments were run by politicians from the communist era who had promised reforms and the EU was concerned that these politicians would return to their pre-1989 ways. The EU had demanded that, to join their club, Eastern Europe must reform its economy and its political bureaucracy to make it more liberal and democratic – in other words, to more closely resemble the West.
The West encouraged Eastern Europe to adopt gender equality policies, or what has been called “gender equality machinery.” If we imagine a government as a factory, these are the machines that enable the factory to produce more gender equal outcomes. It is a problematic analogy, but many of the Western countries adopted it, and so it stuck.
Gender equality machinery in Eastern Europe differed from country to country. Some countries drafted policies for equal opportunities in the labor market and created special departments devoted to monitoring these policies and their implementation. Some sought to put more women in the management and direction of government bureaucracy so that women could make the crucial decisions that impact them and all of society. Reports were written, conferences were organized, and speeches were made.
The success of equality machinery in Eastern Europe depended on the political will, and with the changing political power, their names, areas of expertise, and scope of work changed. Eastern Europe, and the EU, found out that the utility of the machinery was dependent on the machinists. When new parties and governments decide to return to gender traditionalism, policies can be reversed, and the new departments can be starved of funds, and the reports, conferences, and speeches can be ignored.
Gender equality requires constant vigilance. Machines cannot run on their own.
The official name of the machinery is European Union’s equality policy called “gender mainstreaming.” It became an official line of incorporating equality into the state structures. Gender mainstreaming assumes that gender equality will become central to all state activities—policy development, research, advocacy/ dialogue, legislation, resource allocation, planning, implementation, and monitoring of programs and projects—at all levels and stages. Gender mainstreaming has been the official European Union approach to issues of gender equality since the Amsterdam Treaty of 1997. The concept derived from the 1995 Beijing Conference’s final document, the Beijing Platform of Action. It is thus also an official UN strategy for achieving gender equality.
For women’s representation in formal politics, the idea of “gender equality” promoted by international agencies and EU discourses has been crucial. The accession of some countries to the EU created momentum for the introduction of “gender equality” language; it has also meant a symbolic relocation from the East to the West, that is, to Europe. In the early 2000s, and largely in relation with the processes of Europeanization, the number of women in formal politics started to rise again. By 2013, women’s representation in formal politics in some countries of Eastern Europe was similar to other European countries, with the notable exception of the Nordic states which are ranking above the average when women’s political participation in concerned. For example already in 1958 Sweden appointed a first female prime minister, Ulla Gunilla Lindström, and in 1994 it became a first European state in which women had more than 40% of the seats of parliament, and half of the cabinet positions in government.
EU integration did not, in itself, bring about an increase of the number of women in formal politics in Eastern Europe. For accession countries, negotiation with the European Union throughout the 1990s meant significant changes in employment policies, parental leave provisions, and childcare regulations. But the EU did not demand a change to political processes such as party candidate selection or gender quotas. The processes of EU enlargement to some Eastern European states brought about increased diversity in paths towards gender equality in politics. The EU in general strengthens the process of institutionalization of gender equality in the region. Between 1997 and 2000, as a result of combined pressures from the EU and women’s NGOs, the majority of EU applicant states introduced a number of laws and institutions promoting “gender equality”. The EU’s “equal opportunities” language also influenced the way gender equality policies have been shaped in countries beyond the EU. In Ukraine, for instance, in December of 2006, the Parliament adopted the “State Program on Ensuring Gender Equality in Ukrainian Society” until the year 2010. Yet, it remained in one of the lowest categories of women’s representation in the region (link to gender quotas book). Ukraine had adopted a gender quota law, which, at the time of its adoption, was scheduled to take effect in 2023.