Leading with a good example

Four women – one of our journalists among them – are looking for answers to important life questions.  Women’s careers, the situation of minorities, balancing work and personal life.

(Translated into English by the Romedia Foundation – original can be found in the November issue of Marie Claire Magyarország)

Author: Gyárfás Dorka Photography: Csibi Szilvi

Women in their thirties, who have achieved a lot in their own field. They are independent and lead their own enterprises. Emese is the executive manager of the MN6 Energy Agency, who is looking for environmentally conscious solutions for her customers and is additionally the mother of three boys.  Laura Komócsin is the founder of Business Coach Kft. She advises senior managers of large companies, train coaches and raises two children at home. Kata Bársony helps Roma youth through her work at the Romedia Foundation, introducing them to the opportunities provided by media, while passionately documenting a wide variety of Roma fates. All three of them have formed and defined their opinions, they are informed, traveled people with a lot of useful experiences. This is why we didn’t only ask them about their careers.

Still from the article - November issue of Marie Claire. © MarieClaire

Still from the article – November issue of Marie Claire. © MarieClaire

Have you thought about the sexist manifestations appearing in public life? There were many press stories like this in the last couple of weeks.

Emese Kovács: We talked about it a lot at the company. We were all very upset. We work with men often so someone making comments only because we’re women is not unusual for us, disregarding our thoughts. I think this is horrible.

Kata Bársony: I also listened to the parliamentary speech where the Secretary of State for the Environment told a representative that although she is beautiful, she may not be smart. When I read or hear such things, I always think of Northern European countries who have been trying to balance gender roles on every frontier in the last few decades – so that women can take jobs in similar ways to men and that men can also take their part in household activities, like women. Numbers show how much more successful these arrangements can make a country. A comment like this would be of laughing stock there and I’m quite sure that it doesn’t do us much good either. The standard of our parliamentary discourse makes me feel queasy.

Laura Komócsin: In the new millennium my husband and I decided not to watch the news and not to read any political articles, so this is the first time I’ve heard about this. My own experience is that although people handle women as equal partners in more and more countries, there still are such atrocities everywhere. We must learn to deal with them. For example when a female leader enters the management of a company where all the others are men and she has to prevail, preserving her femininity, she is sure to perceive it as a challenge. I’ve seen a lot of attempts, among those some were successful, and female leaders were able to earn their respect.

But how can they do it? What can one do when attacked because of her femininity instead of a professional debate?

Laura Komócsin: They should signal immediately that they have departed from the subject and try to direct the conversation back to the original, professional topic. I think these comments characterize and discredit those who say them. Someone who is unable to raise arguments in a debate is unable to behave in a civilized way. It’s their disgrace.

Kata Bársony: I think we ought to prepare for these situations, have a witty answer in store. As for me, I usually say: “it’s true, I’m a woman, but this is why I’m able to look at things from a slightly different angle”. I can undertake that my brain functions in a different way and this way I can add something to the conversation instead of taking something away.

Emese Kovács: Usually I just make a joke. We have to take the edge of these comments away, so the emotions can evaporate.

Still from the article - November issue of Marie Claire. © MarieClaire

Still from the article – November issue of Marie Claire. © MarieClaire

I am wondering, what do these sexist comments highlight? May it be related to the small number of women in Hungarian parliament?

Emese Kovács: I think women’s quota could solve this problem and the European Union will shortly introduce it, at least in the Boards of Directors of large companies. It’s not a problem as long as we talk about it. Numbers prove us: not only those countries perform better who have women governing in almost equal proportions to men, but also those companies. I think there are two existing problems: the situation of women and the situation of women with children. There has been no progress in the problems of the second group so far. We don’t receive any help so that we can successfully start working again after having a child, not  to mention having a responsible position or a career.

Can the balance of work and personal life even exist? One of the leaders of the American Foreign Office, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote an article, which became a highly debated issue in America. She wrote: only women who 1. are very rich 2. organize their own timetable – meaning they have their own companies – or 3. have superpowers are able to balance work and personal life. She herself was unable to accomplish it and gave up her political career after 2 years, returning to teaching at the university.

Laura Komócsin: I believe that we are able to succeed. True, I’m in the second group: I have my own company, and organize my own timetable. This way I have enough time to be with my children and I can also make space for quality time with my husband. I think this is our choice most of the time and most women just don’t dare to undertake their own needs. Then comes the other important thing: do we dare to ask for help? A great deal of women choose the role of the victim and don’t dare to ask someone to come over and do a bit of ironing. How many more valuable, more important things could have done with that time. Of course we can always blame the state, the multinational companies, the weather, anything, but we should be the ones who should figure out what we want. We have to take our strengths and what we want into consideration and undertake those small fights, which are needed to reach something.

We should also learn how to ask for help at our workplace, not only at home and within the family.

Laura Komócsin: Yes, we must. I experience it more and more often. I see how much easier those leaders who have mentors or coaches are able to solve problems. We have to find women over fifty and have taken a similar path in life. They can give lots and lots of experience in various fields. They can tell you what to do when called stupid or a silly blonde or what they did when they suddenly had to pick up a sick kid from kindergarten.

Emese Kovács: My mother helps me the most; she was a senior manager and founded her own company in the past. When she saw that I wouldn’t like to take it over from her, she sold it all off.  It was so good to see that she can accept my decision and let go of this story. I can always ask her what she would do in my place and I’m very grateful for this.

Kata Bársony: For me, the last four years were about creating a balance between my work and my personal life. I had lots of hard attempts even though I don’t have children. I haven’t found the perfect balance yet.

Laura Komócsin: I think it’s important to add that this isn’t only our problem. I know several senior manager men, who have a stomach spasm from not being able to go play football with the guys once a week or visit their sick mothers. But they also have bosses to whom they need to comply.

Still from the article - November issue of Marie Claire. © MarieClaire

Still from the article – November issue of Marie Claire. © MarieClaire

And what do you usually suggest?

Laura Komócsin: There aren’t any general answers; we have to handle every problem personally.

Emese Kovács: I worked at a multinational company in the past, but I wasn’t able to return after giving birth to my children, even though I would have liked to. But there isn’t any job-sharing, meaning that two people are doing the same job and there isn’t any part time work either. I had to found my own company, so I can organize my own timetable.

But why? Do you think people working at multinational companies work more than people in their own companies, where they have to fight for every single salary?

Emese Kovács: No, we’re just more time-efficient. There is a great deal of time wasted on unnecessary mandatory things in multinational companies. No one works more efficiently than a mother with small kids, at least I think so.

Laira Komócsin: Not to mention that in your own company you can get up at half past four to go to the parent’s meeting and you can get back to work after dropping the kids off.

Long ago, multinational companies were the most attractive workplaces: company car above a certain level, mobile phone, predictable progress. Today, young people don’t want this. Startups or smaller, independent initiatives are much cooler.

Laura Komócsin: Multinational companies still suit a lot of people better because they are unable to take risks and security, predictability is important to them. I would only recommend starting a small, amateur company to people with proactive personalities, who are looking for challenges.

Emese Kovács: And a safety net is needed for someone to start a new, independent enterprise. Because, in your own company you always have to worry about things like: if they are going to sign the contract, are they going to pay. My safety net is my husband, who said: do it. This only works with a background like this.

What kind of workplace are you trying to create around you?

Kata Bársony: We have just finished rearranging the office. We tried to give everyone a personal space where they can feel good. We pay special attention to field work because I think it’s the best thing in the world. And when we do something together – like designing a logo for example – everyone can contribute with their ideas and we decide which idea is the best one together.

Kata, when you say fieldwork that means poor Roma settlements, where you are able to closely see how hard it is to break out from. Several million people are living in Hungary nowadays who don’t have family background that enables independency or a personal enterprise. How can they take their destinies into their own hands?

Lilla, Roxy and Fanni (left to right - Participants of the Buvero Roma woman Media Camp)

Lilla, Roxy and Fanni (left to right – Participants of the Buvero Roma woman Media Camp)

Laura Komócsin: I’m of the opinion that people should be taught how to fish instead of just being given fish, because that only leads to scandal. However they should be taught how to fish.

Kata Bársony: We fish! We taught twelve adolescent girls how to make films over two weeks. We showed them how to tell stories, how they can tell their own stories. And at the end of the two weeks, twelve conscious Roma girls were standing in front of me, who had accurate notions on what they want and how they can move forward. The example is really important. They should see women, who achieved something, who can be their role models.

Emese Kovács: I also think that the root of this problem is that several hundred thousand people have no image of what going to work is like, what making progress is like, what building something is like. I agree that we have to give them seeds, poultry so that they can take care of themselves. But after this, education would be the most important.

Laura Komócsin: I have a problem with reallocation. The bagel which ends up in the bin every morning, because “mummy, I’m not going to eat this at all” – it’s already lost, no matter how hard I try to tell them how much someone else would appreciate it. We lead an unbelievably wasting lifestyle. This is why we always take the food remains to a village after conferences. This is a matter of taking individual responsibility. I believe that we have to get directly familiar with the person in need of help and their situation. This is why I don’t support big organizations, only personal goals. And the media should also portray role models.

Kata Bársony: We need much more solidarity coming from the side of the middle class. We should know about the problems of our neighbors, how we could help those who live nearby. Maybe they just need that half a kilo of bread, or the jeans we are never going to wear again. We are Roma people at the Romedia Foundation and this is a main concern for us, how we can leave the environment where we shoot, where we work. Many of us are resourceful people who can turn a bottle into a solar cell, make biodiesel out of domestic oil and use compost in a completely new way. I usually send them to these villages to educate people and search for solutions together with them. Communities should be involved – in places where they exist. They should take part in the work and change their lives themselves. There has to be something that inspires them.