By Alix Norman
We live in the 21st century. In what many would consider – despite recent events – a fairly prosperous, economically developed country. We have access to basic amenities, few of us go hungry, education and healthcare are readily available and we live, for the most part, in what is considered a safe society. Political and cultural freedoms exist, and our standard of living is relatively high compared to many places in the world. So it’s staggering to discover that, in this day and age, we’re all quietly accepting of a vast inequality that colours our everyday lives: gender discrimination in the workplace.
I’ve got to admit, until I met Maria Socratous, it wasn’t an issue to which I’d given much thought. I work in an office almost equally comprised of both sexes, where the positions of power are held – in the main – by women with large and happy families. But, apparently, this is not the norm. In fact, it’s positively atypical when it comes to the working world in Cyprus. Because, in many places of employment here, the glass ceiling – especially as regards working mothers – is very much in existence…
“Cyprus is a social minefield for women in the workplace,” says Maria, who has spent the last five years of her life researching the effects of motherhood on workplace progression for her PhD thesis. “There are a great many barriers, and discrimination is still rife.” Though Cyprus merely reflects global trends in this area, she suggests, the situation here is particularly divisive – a recent study conducted by PWC indicating that in 2010 half of all Cypriot-based organisations (both public and private) did not have a single woman on their board of directors, and a mere 32.7 per cent had just one. Shocking statistics indeed.
But this is merely part of the bigger picture that Maria has uncovered, driven by the constant curiosity that – at some points in her life – has caused her more than a spot of bother. “I was always a bit of a rebel at school, fighting for people’s rights,” she smiles, “and this got me into trouble on more than one occasion!” But in later life, this habit of questioning the social norms has helped, rather than hindered, her academic progress; a boon perhaps in her completion of her Bachelors, two Masters and now her PhD.
“I always questioned everything,” she says. “And, from an early age, I’d noticed that women in Cyprus were treated very differently from men. As the eldest sibling, I saw my parents being much more lenient with my brother, allowing him more trust and feeling the need to protect me to a greater degree because I was female.” And she saw this trend of discrimination only increasing through the years, both at school – “in our books women were shown in the kitchen with the kids while men were doctors and lawyers” – and, later, in the workplace.
“From an early age I’d noticed discrimination against my mother in her job, as she was passed over for promotion in favour of her male counterparts,” Maria explains. “It was something I myself had experienced when I worked for a time at a well-known local broadcaster. And, to compound the issue, even my own grandmother would frequently ask when I was going to settle down, stay at home and have children.” And therein, she suggests, lies the heart of the matter: gender discrimination is cultural and, in Cyprus, perpetrated as much by women as by men.
“Women in Cyprus feel that only they are capable of bringing up the children,” she says. “It’s something that is embedded in their minds, and though they feel that it’s a choice they’ve made, it’s actually not; it’s the way they were raised: kids first, job second.”
In the course of her research – conducted using qualitative analysis in the form of interviews with accountants and academics, both male and female – Maria saw her hypothesis that gender discrimination derives from our own culture borne out. “There’s a great deal of gender discrimination occurring on a regular basis here in Cyprus,” she says. “Men are frequently endorsed over women purely because of their gender (though this does not happen overtly), while, often, women are not promoted because it’s believed that at some point they will have children and want to work fewer hours.”
While some women may not see themselves as career-minded, and this is a different matter entirely she adds, for the most part women in Cyprus feel the social obligation to get married and start a family. And coupled with the patriarchal ‘old school tie’ network, this results in far fewer women rising to the top.
“One of the most striking discoveries I made in the course of my research was that a number of men would have no problem in being a house husband were it not for the societal pressures to be ‘the breadwinner’,” she continues. “Gender discrimination works both ways, and you have to remember there’s no such thing as paid paternity leave in Cyprus; it’s no wonder women are more engaged with child care.”
With little previous research into such an important subject – “this is the first concrete research from a management point of view,” Maria explains – it’s important to look at what has been happening and what can be done. “It’s a combination of factors that all need to change,” she concludes. “The educational system, how we raise our children, childcare facilities; society as a whole needs to take a step forward, to change the way it thinks, communicate and trust more.”
“Things can change here, but we need to start somewhere,” she concludes. “And, after five years of research, I’d say it’s women who need to be the catalyst. Though I know people don’t like looking at their lives and being forced to deal with their problems, let’s hope that making people aware of some of the issues may just be the beginning of change…”
Maria’s paper on ‘Motherhood: An impediment to workplace progression? The case of Cyprus’ (part of her thesis) was recently presented at the conference on Gender Law and Institutions organised by the UNESCO chair in gender equality and women’s empowerment. For more information on this subject, visit the University of Cyprus website on www.ucy.ac.cy The specific link is www.ucy.ac.cy/unesco/documents/UNESCOConference2014/UNESCOConference2014_2ndCallForProposals_FINAL30.6.2014.pdf