The complicated explanation of an even more complicated question.
In the past few decades, every country in the EU has lived a reform of gender roles, especially
when it comes to the opportunities and life stories of females. Apparently, women now can
have it all: in 2006 Greek Law 3488/2006 stated that from then on, women are to be paid
equally and that certain measures against sexual harassment at the workplace are to be taken. In
2011, Greece signed the Istanbul convention for combating gender-based and domestic
violence. In addition, educational pilot projects for encouraging female students to start a career
in a male-dominated work fields have been created.
Looking at all this positive development, it might come as quite a surprise that Greece was
ranked last on the EU Gender Equality Index in both 2019 and 2020. This index rates the
equality between men and women in different fields such as health, power and knowledge.
Maybe Greek women are simply satisfied with the social, political and economic situation they
find themselves in and don’t feel the need to progress any further? Or is it the strong influence
of the Orthodox Church that is oppressing women in Greece who cherish the wish to free
themselves from the patriarchy? When trying to find an explanation to the very complex
question if, how and why Greek women are being treated unfairly, there is a large spectrum of
aspects that need to be taken into consideration.
The vicious circle of politics
If there is one certainty in life, it is that we humans always take care of the people we feel we
belong to. Accordingly, it came as no surprise that when the new Greek government was
elected in 2019 and the new Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis took over a cabinet whose
senior positions consisted of seventeen men and only one woman, some changes in equality
policies were made. When it came to the area of gender equality, the especially
right/conservatively oriented part of “Nea Demokratia” (“New Democracy”) dominated in the
decision making. Therefore Mitsotakis agreed to merge the General Secretariat of Gender
Equality, which played a great role in promoting and making progress on women’s rights, with
the General Secretariat of Family Policy and Demography.
Some might say that this decision was only a formality and should be rewarded with no
attention, but, in truth, it is a sign of ignorance and naivety. Merging these governmental
institutions means stating that gender inequality is not enough of a problem anymore to pay
such an amount of attention to it. Taking this step, the government downgraded the institution
by taking away some of its power and ability to influence current policies and political
decisions. That way the circle closes: With (mostly) male politicians “oppressing” institutions
that promote female rights and these institutions therefore not having enough power to
influence politics or get more women into higher political positions, the situation stays the same
and there is no way out in sight.
Being stuck in this vicious circle, the image and gender perception that Greeks have of women
can change only very slowly. Needless to say, they are still closely connected to the ideas of the
past Ottoman Empire and the still ongoing patriarchal perspectives of the Orthodox Church.
That explains why, even though Mitsotakis’ “Nea Demokratia” party set up a 40% women’s
quota for the candidates in the 2019 election, females are still an absolute minority in Greek
politics. As the surroundings do not change, one cannot expect that the society suddenly
decides to change and think of women as suitable leaders. But instead of regarding what
happened at and after the 2019 elections as a problem that needs to be acknowledged and fixed,
Prime Minister Mitsotakis limited his mindset to the phrase:
“I asked a lot of women to join the cabinet, they were much more
hesitant than men to do so.”1
With the current political and social situation, the politicians are apparently not ready yet to
search beyond this very, very simplified answer to an extremely complicated question.
Work life: Between tradition and potential
When thinking why women cannot work as much as men, the first explanation that might
come to mind is because they need to take care of their family. However, when taking a closer
look, one will see that the Greek government actually provides a lot of options for parents to
have their children and the elderly members of their family looked after and “entertained”.
Starting from free pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and after-school activities up to free daycare
centers for the elderly (called “K.A.Π.Η.”), there are many governmental institutions that make
it possible for women to both take care of their family and start a career. Yet, many women
choose not to work at all or to only do work in the social work field. It all leads back to the very
root of the gender issue, which is how females in Greece are seen by the Greek people
The strongly patriarchally influenced family structure can be perfectly captured in one phrase
which the priest says at every Greek Orthodox wedding:
“H δέ γυνή ἵνα φοβῆται τόν ἄνδρα.”-“And the wife shall revere her husband.”
This phrase essentially means that a wife has to respect her husband and, if she fails to do so,
she has to fear him. In 2021 this is mostly meant as a joke, but it still leaves a strong impression
and makes very clear who takes the decisions in the family.
Naturally, the wife is thus the “heart” of the family and often feels the need to devote her life
mostly to this role. Even though Greece has one of the lowest gender pay gaps, having been
ranked eighth out of all EU countries in 2019, many women neglect their own careers and job
opportunities in order to adapt to their husband’s career choices. On account of that, many
elderly females do not receive a pension that covers their living expenses. So understandably
women become even more dependent on their husband’s financial income or, if they choose to
separate from their spouse, often suffer from old-age poverty.
Some companies have already made an effort to help women achieve higher positions and
combat sexism at work. These very rare exceptions have understood that a diverse team of
employees leads to diverse ideas, leading to innovative approaches which initially bring the
company success. Women are like a hidden resource, they have a lot of skills and expertise
which they could contribute, but companies miss out on these capabilities because they are too
focused on female-discriminating and old-fashioned world views.
That is why more effort should be put into gender equality projects, such as programs that
enable women to work part time and still achieve a leading position or anti-gender
discrimination seminars. The goal should be to approach a balance between men and women in
both leading positions and on all other levels of employment.
Where does that leave us?
“The situation is a combination of public intervention and personal attitude”, says Professor
Maria Stratigaki, who was Secretary General for Gender Equality from 2009 to 2012. In order to
change the system, the next Prime Minister should put more effort into finding qualified
women who can join the cabinet and make sure that the laws enforced are beneficial for both
men and women. But that is only the basis of what is truly essential for gender equality, which
is a general shift in the mindset of the Greek (and European) society. Young women and men
should lead a lifestyle that leaves no space for catcalling, harassment, the oppression of potential
and talent or unequal opportunities. We need to stop dividing the world into what females and
what males can do. We need to understand that it is everybody’s task to create equal chances
for both genders, even though they find themselves in different life positions. There are a lot of
people in this country, no matter if male or female, who have already understood that the
current situation requires some change. Once people start treating hardworking women not as a
threat or a joke, but as a resource that could enrich our entire system, we will be on a good path
towards a hopeful future.
Special thanks go out to Maria Stratigaki who endured my endless questions about gender
equality in the Hellenic Republic. She was kind enough to take time to offer me a lot of
background knowledge and insights into the life and politics of Greece. My interview with her
is the main source for this article.