The Baltic states' business world has evolved to where, similar to views held across the rest of the EU, nearly all of us here expect gender equality in the work environment in principle. Most of us believe women and men in employment should be able to: work together; hold equal positions; have equal rights, responsibilities, and opportunities; receive equal access to resources and their utilization; and have contributions and problems perceived equally. But unfortunately, there remain for us in the Baltic countries societal stereotypes about gender roles that affect the career development of women and men in practice. This mindset affecting gender career choices is most notable in Latvia. And the resulting outcomes have an especially negative impact on women, where this is correspondingly most notable in Latvia.
Data from the 'Novatore Baltic Gender Equality Barometer 2022' shows that 93% of Baltic residents believe gender equality should exist. But, by contrast, only 65% of those surveyed believe it is possible in real life. And even many women in the region hold this latter view. For example, women aged 30 to 49, those working in manufacturing and industrial sectors, those living in larger households (with four or more people), and those generally more subject to gender role biases are less likely to believe broad gender equality is achievable in practice.
Trapped in limiting gender stereotypes, particularly in Latvia
The data from the 2022 Barometer shows that – more than those in Lithuania and Estonia – people in Latvia have stronger stereotypes about gender-based roles. Broadly, women are to take care of the home and family; the responsibility of men is to earn money at work. And this includes that men should earn more than women when working. Furthermore, these stereotypes are more persistent among Latvian men of all ages but weaker among younger ones.
Behavior caused by prejudices and their consequences in the workplace often makes it difficult to feel good and limits career growth, particularly for women. Most notably, when high-level leaders and established older workers have negative prejudices, the impact is dramatic; they telegraph lower expectations for one or another of the sexes' abilities, performance, and potential.
Many gender-based stereotypes limit the potential of women. However, the following six are notable examples. And evaluating how many of these we observe in our workplaces is worthwhile for those of us inside Latvia but also those of us in Lithuania and Estonia.
1. Women are not suited for leadership roles
Studies show that both women and men are equally good leaders. But the stereotype persists that women are not suitable for leadership positions, somehow less competent than men. This unfounded bias hinders women from developing their leadership skills to their full potential and is crucial in creating the trap where they get blocked from advancing into leadership positions. For example, data from the 'Novatore Baltic Gender Equality Barometer 2022' shows that office employees who believe in stereotypes like this are likelier to believe that men are more suitable for higher positions. This viewpoint is especially true for men aged 50 to 65.
2. Women are "girls" while men are men
It remains too common that in dialogues women get referred to as though they are still "girls" while men are not referred to as being "boys." The terminology difference is inherently biased, suggesting women are not fully developed and remain dependent. This communication technique inherently places men over women unjustly. The practice is more common among men but is also used by women.
3. Women are naturally inclined toward subordinate caring for others
Often, the expectation of women is they assume at work supportive roles outside their official duties. The practice creates an internal culture where women devote time to these tasks instead of their professional responsibilities, contributing equally to organizational results.
"Seemingly small tasks – including making coffee, arranging gifts, organizing bonding events – that are not part of actual job duties and not rewarded take up significant time that otherwise may be devoted to performing one's real responsibilities. For instance, taking meeting notes is usually entrusted to women and serves to 'shut them up' by making expressing their own opinions difficult while also needing to take notes of what is happening. Such extra burdens reduce women's capacities to achieve results in their duties and therefore limit their professional development,"
says Dagnija Lejina, co-founder of Novatore.
4. Women should behave in a feminine manner
Women are often expected to behave and communicate in stereotypically feminine ways, such as being nurturing, empathetic, cooperative, and submissive. When women do not act according to these expectations, such as being more assertive or demanding, they are labeled bossy, angry, and unpleasant. By contrast, men behaving in similarly commanding fashions are considered strong and capable. This biased treatment of assertive women affects their performance evaluations, promotion opportunities, and overall workplace success.
5. Women's value is in their appearance
Too often women are evaluated and valued for being objects of desire. And a progression to actual sexual harassment sometimes results. According to data from the Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia, 11% of women in Latvia have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Women between 18 and 29 report experiencing sexual harassment the most. It often occurs due to the stereotype that women are objects and their value is in their appearance. The result is they are considered less competent and not taken seriously.
Similarly, assumptions by colleagues that a woman got a job solely because she looks good undermine her abilities, slows her growth, and limits her opportunities. Sexual harassment reduces women's participation in the workforce, especially in professions dominated by men, thus additionally denying or reducing their earning potential.
6. Women with children should choose first to be moms
The common assumption is that women with children should devote less time to work and more time to their families. This viewpoint leads to lower salaries and fewer career growth opportunities for these women. The stereotypes about "traditional" gender family roles directly affect women in their work environments. One hundred years ago, women mostly stayed home to care for their children, but today they make up almost half of the workforce. However, the workload of household chores has remained high. Women today still carry out most of the housework, social life planning, and childcare. This situation has earned the term "second shift," when women go home after a day's professional work to resume their other non-paying full-time job.
And recognizing that men also face gender inequality in the Baltic states is important, even though the stereotypes affect women more. The expectation is men act "manly" and be independent, assertive, strong, competent, competitive. Men rarely ask for help or admit a lack of knowledge, which gets seen as a weakness. Such unrealistic expectations of men lead to burnout and mental health problems, as they feel pressure to bear burdens quietly without emotion. Studies increasingly show that good leadership competence involves emotional intelligence, empathy, and listening skills. However, stereotypically, such behaviors are considered unmanly and attributed to women.
Conclusion: The Situation Has Improved, But Greater Engagement Remains Needed
These workplace prejudices hinder workers and organizations, limiting growth. A healthy work environment unlocks people's potential, allowing them to apply their strengths to their work regardless of gender. That enterprises are increasingly devoting time and resources to promoting inclusion is positive.
"At SEB bank, we pay close attention to equal opportunities for career development for women and men. Over the past four years, the proportion of women in senior positions in the bank has increased by ten percent, achieving a healthy balance in the distribution of positions between the genders. At the same time, we are promoting the return of working women after maternity leave by offering reduced workloads or fully remote work, if necessary,"
says Ilze Ogle, SEB Bank's Head of Human Resources.
She sees that the opportunity for men to take parental leave is also gradually gaining more attention. Still, deeply ingrained stereotypes about child-rearing surround this option, requiring more joint efforts by the state and companies to reduce such prejudices.
But the greatest need is for individual action. First, all of us, men and women, must identify these circumstances. Then, we need to diplomatically but persistently demand change. And the reason to do so is simple: Eliminating these unjust, outdated practices raises wellbeing and economic prosperity for all, not only women.