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  • Growth Models and Female Labor in Post-Socialist Eastern Europe
  • Sonja Avlijaš (bio)

Eastern European women had the highest labor force participation in the world during socialism. With the onset of capitalism, significant shares of women permanently exited the labor market in some countries, while they stayed economically active in others. This article shows that the countries' different capitalist growth models—defined as strategic national approaches to growth stimulation and job creation—can explain this divergence. Nonlinear interactions between national growth models and structuring of female labor are theoretically abstracted in this article, following which they are tested empirically using a statistical dataset that covers twelve Eastern European countries during the period 1997–2015.


This article is concerned with how capitalist transformation impacts female labor. Using the case of Eastern Europe, it identifies the mechanisms through which capitalist growth models have affected the structuring of the female labor force since the collapse of socialism. Following political economy literature on capitalist diversity (Amable 2003; Baccaro and Pontusson 2016; Hall and Soskice 2001; Thelen 2014), growth models are conceptualized as economic specializations and complementary institutional reforms that countries pursue to stimulate growth and create jobs. While we know that different growth models have emerged in Eastern Europe since the demise of socialism (Bohle and Greskovits 2012), their effects on female labor have not yet been explored. As these interactions have not been examined in other contexts either, this article focusing on Eastern Europe constitutes a pioneering scholarly effort to theorize and empirically test the relationship between the two phenomena.

Eastern Europe is a salient case study for researching the impact of economic restructuring and its complementary institutional reforms on labor market dynamics, as it allows us to observe capitalist transformations and [End Page 534]

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Figure 1.

Female labor force participation by region and decade.

Source: Author's calculations based on data from the International Labour Organization (ILO) Laborsta database.

Notes. (1) Central Asia is included with Eastern Europe since statistics are not disaggregated by the Soviet Republics. (2) Data do not contain all years nor all countries, especially for EECA (Belarus, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Germany GDR, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, USSR, and Yugoslavia are included). (3) Latin American data exclude Caribbean islands.

emergence of market economies in fast-forward mode. Moreover, the region's high female labor force participation during socialism stood out in comparison to capitalist economies that were at similar or higher levels of economic development (figure 1). Socialist countries placed a strong emphasis on female work and promotion of dual-earner families (Chase 1995; Lobodzinska 1995). Apart from the ideological commitment to gender equality, economic activation of women and their entry into industrial labor was of enormous economic importance for socialist Eastern Europe in the postwar era, given the exceptionally high death toll of its population, and especially men, during World War II (e.g., Poland lost 17 percent of its population). Female employment was particularly high in the Visegrad countries—about 19 percent of working-age women in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland were employed during the 1980s (World Bank 2011, 348).

The transition to capitalism, triggered by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, initially had a strong negative impact on women's, along with men's, labor force participation across the entire region (figure 2). The lowest levels of women's participation could be observed around year 2000, approximately ten years into these countries' market transitions (figure 3). Since then, some of the countries have successfully reintegrated both women and men into their [End Page 535]

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Figure 2.

Change in activity rates by gender in selected transition economies, 1985–97.

Source: United Nations Economic Commission for Europe secretariat estimates, based on national labor force surveys, statistical yearbooks, and direct communications from national statistical offices.

labor markets, while the gap between the recovering male and stagnant female labor force participation has remained large in others.

Specifically, the Baltic countries saw a substantial economic reactivation of women since the early 2000s. By the end of 2015, labor force participation of working age women (aged fifteen to sixty-four) in both Estonia...


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