Mrs. Kristalina Georgieva is the current Vice-President of the European Commission and the European Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources. Before that, she served as the European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response in the Barroso Commission, and as Vice-President and Corporate Secretary of the World Bank. Starting from 2 January 2017, Mrs. Georgieva will return to the World Bank as the new Chief Executive Officer. Besides possessing a proven track record, Mrs. Kristalina Georgieva has consistently been the Bulgarian politician with the highest approval ratings in for the past few years.
In February 2016, I approached Mrs. Georgieva to conduct an interview related to the International Women’s Day on 8 March. Here, Mrs. Kristalina Georgieva discusses the importance of women in managerial positions, the progress of the European Commission on gender equality, and the personal challenges she faced in her career path.
How do you assess the progress of the European Union regarding gender equality and participation of women in leadership positions? In your opinion, what remains to be achieved?
The times we live in provide us with sufficient evidence that the success of every country, institution or company depends on the potential of all talented and capable people—both men and women. The data for Europe, for instance, shows clearly that countries where women have the biggest share in political, social and economic life—such as the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands—are also among the most prosperous. This also applies to many of the most successful firms. For this reason, in my opinion, there is no doubt that if we want to live in a more prosperous and peaceful world, we need to make sure that women have a bigger role in it.
The European Union has made great progress, but there is a long road ahead. In most member states, women represent less than one-third of their members of the parliament or ministers. In the last elections for European Parliament, women reached a record-high representation of 37%, twice as high as the percentage 25 years ago.
In the current Commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker, the female commissioners amount to 32%. Regarding Heads of Cabinet and Deputy Heads of Cabinet, this amount is 42%. In the lower and middle management levels, the share of women is 33-34%. We began the mandate of the current Commission with six women as Director-Generals and three as Deputy Director-Generals. Today, the change is visible—we have eight women as Director-Generals of EC’s Departments, or 22% of the Director-Generals, and twelve (29%) Deputy Director-Generals.
This change is a result of our strategy to focus on the participation of women on the highest levels of leadership. Just a week ago we had a unique case when in a single day for six key leadership positions, we hired six women. We do realize that when change starts from the top, it is much easier for it to occur in the lower levels of management too. This is not just about European institutions. When we see more female presidents and prime ministers, it becomes easier to perceive this model, and it, in turn, expands to all levels of society.
In the past year, you announced your commitment to increasing the number of women in leadership positions in the European Commission from 27.5% to 40% by the end of 2019. Why do you place this among your main goals? Why should we aim for a better representation of women in politics?
This is important if we want to produce more and live better. The demographic picture of Europe demands better use of the active participation of women in the EU’s economics and politics. Despite the great progress we have made, we are still living in a male dominated world. Women represent the prevailing part of world’s and Europe’s populations. In Europe, women already surpass men in terms of education, but their potential is not always used completely and often remains underappreciated. Even nowadays in the EU, men, on average, earn about 16.4% higher salaries for the same work. When it comes to pensions, this discrepancy reaches 33%.
The European Commission has the obligation to prove that we can make complete use of the talents of everyone, male and female. A lot of intelligent and capable people work for us, and we can only win if all of them have equal access to leadership positions. For a start, we want to achieve 40% women on high-level leadership positions. And it is important to note that this goal will not be achieved automatically on its own. No one will receive a position simply because of gender; personal qualities, experience, knowledge, and skills remain the dominating factors. In the case of equal conditions, however, women will receive the priority until we reach a fair distribution. The fact that the care for family and children falls mainly on their shoulders should not exclude them from personal development and career. In my opinion, it should be the opposite—we should help them combine these two things.
We are trying to do so in four main ways. Firstly, we encourage women to apply for higher-level positions, because sometimes they do not believe in their own abilities and are less willing than men to compete for these positions. We employ and continue to work on programs in this direction: training and development of leadership qualities, mentorship, early talent identification, etc.
Secondly, we strive to create the best possible conditions so that women can combine work and family care. We have flexible working hours, providing more and more opportunities for work from home. We reversed the previous model where the employee had to prove that they are capable of working efficiently from home. Now, it is the employer who has to prove that the employee must work in the office at any price if they are to reject an employee’s “work from a distance” claim.
We know that no one can dedicate their full potential in work if at that moment they are worried about their children. For this reason, we continue to increase the capacity of kindergartens and primary schools. We created the necessary steps for a shared responsibility between the parents, such as allowing the fathers to use their leave for parenting.
Last but not least, I emphasize the determination and political will to give more opportunities to women—in Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission this is a reality, and I believe that we will begin to see the results very soon.
Politics remains a male-dominated sphere. In your long experience in the field, have you ever been subjected to unequal treatment? Do you remember cases in which the fact that you are a woman presented obstacles for you?
I belong to a generation in which things were much more difficult. When I began to climb the ladder, which was perceived as reserved for men, I had to work harder than them in order to be treated equally. Fortunately, times are changing, and good examples quickly change perceptions too. I hope that my daughter does not have to go through the same things as I did and that her daughter, in turn, will not even have to think about issues such as gender equality.
I hope that these changes will also manifest geographically. In a lot of places around the world, discrimination and prejudices continue to hinder women’s development and societies’ full potential.
The European Parliament chose 2016 to be the “European year for combating violence against women.” What would you say to women who, unfortunately, have been (or are) subjected to these acts of aggression?
-For me, violence has always been an abominable, incomprehensible and inadmissible act. The data about its extent I can only describe as shocking. I cannot really comprehend how it is possible that in our Europe of everyday intellectual, scientific and cultural achievement, 25 women are subjected to physical violence, 75 to sexual harassment and 7 to sexual assault per minute.
Apparently, the outdated notion of “the weaker gender” is perceived by some people as a sign of vulnerability, and vulnerability as an opportunity for assault. It is very important to face the truth, to realize the problem, to create an absolute intolerance towards it and to educate our children to respect the others in order to eradicate this way of thinking and the acts related to it.
It is also vital to help the victims of violence. They often feel embarrassed, sometimes even tend to accept the fault for what has happened to them, and they would not share or seek help which makes their violators even more arrogant. To the women in this situation, don’t blame yourself. The only one to blame and punish is the violator. Seek strength from within and support from others in order to put the violators in their place.
You have occupied and continue to occupy important managing positions in prestigious organizations—World Bank, European Commission, etc. Do you believe that your experience might serve as an inspiration for those girls and women who still hesitate whether to enter male-dominated fields? What would advise them?
I have always said that in my life there have been sacrifices in the name of work. And I will not say to women who hesitate that there’s no need to fear and that it is easy, because it is not. However, when a woman has a dream, when she wants to be active, to prove herself, to do something for others, she can do it; she can find the balance between work and her personal life.
In my view, when we have hesitations, we should not bend heads and give up, but instead, we should keep fighting. I would advise women to have more courage, to believe more in themselves and to follow their dreams. Even the more difficult things seem impossible until you actually do them.
Note: The interview was conducted in February 2016, and some of the numbers above might have changed. The interview was first published on the Bulgarian news website Dnevnik.bg and translated from Bulgarian into English by Martin Vasev.