There are several pieces of good news coming out of Serbia. The first is that the percentage of women in top management positions in the country’s largest employer, Elektroprivreda Srbije (EPS) – the state-owned enterprise that employs approximately 35,000 people – was 23 percent in 2019.
While this statistic may seem low at first glance, it nonetheless stands out favorably when compared with the global average: according to Ernst & Young, only 15 percent of senior managers in power and utilities companies were women, as of early 2019. However, this figure is still well below gender parity; it is also below Serbia’s own achievements across other sectors of the economy: according to World Bank data, as early as 2016, 31 percent of senior and middle management positions in the country were occupied by women – illustrating that much more can be done to achieve gender parity in sectors that have historically been dominated by men, such as energy.
The second piece of good news is that the World Bank is well-positioned to help balance the scales. In 2016, the World Bank extended a Development Policy Loan (DPL) to Serbia, aimed at supporting policy reform in the areas of Public Expenditure and Public Utilities - including actions focused on EPS’s labor force. During discussions in preparation of this operation, the gender gap in management positions became evident, prompting EPS to ask for World Bank support to improve the situation.
Encouraged by a committed Human Resources manager at EPS (a woman!), the Energy Sector Management Assistance Program’s (ESMAP) Women and Energy Initiative helped push the envelope in this company through a Women in Leadership Program, composed of three complementary activities: carrying out a qualitative diagnostic of the constraints to equal participation of women in the EPS workforce; developing a women’s leadership training and mentoring program; and delivering a presentation to EPS management on the benefits of gender diversity.
The diagnostic revealed several barriers women face at different stages of their career cycle - from the job application stage through recruitment, retention, and career advancement. Based on the results of the diagnostic, a World Bank team developed a Women in Leadership training course, touching upon different aspects of leadership (i.e. personal, relational, organizational leadership) and how to overcome the challenges faced by women. This training was administered to a pilot group of 100 female workers at EPS - the overwhelming majority of whom declared having increased confidence by the end of the training. A separate training for trainers was also conducted with 19 EPS employees, who are now able to continue delivering the Women in Leadership Training across EPS.
These initiatives were a crucial first step in breaking the ice on the issue of gender equality and diversity among the EPS workforce and management. One concrete result of the discussions with EPS leadership was that the company is now developing a roadmap for organizational change that includes several elements, including delivering training on gender equality and anti-discrimination to union representatives; training on unconscious bias to EPS workers; the creation of a working group to reconsider company policy guidelines that ascribe specific jobs to men and suggest actions to improve working conditions for men and women; and most importantly, introducing procedures on career planning, development, and advancement to support women who want to take on management and leadership roles.
The Women in Leadership Program was made possible thanks to Serbia’s policy and institutional environment. The National Law on Gender Equality from 2009 requires that employers prepare annual plans for mitigating and eradicating unequal gender representation and report on the implementation of these measures. EPS leadership was therefore open to the technical guidance on gender equality and diversity in the workplace offered by the World Bank.
The government has also taken measures to ensure greater female participation in policymaking by instituting electoral quotas. As a result, since 2012, women have held one third of seats in parliament, up from 22 percent in 2011. According to the European Institute for Gender Equality, in 2016 Serbia became the first European Union (EU) accession country to produce a Gender Equality Index that reveals how women and men fare in various fields, according to a broad scale of indicators. In 2018, Serbia scored 55.8 points out of 100 on the index - which is a very promising result, considering an EU average of 67.4. Sweden tops the EU scoreboard, with 83.6 points.
As the biggest employer in Serbia, changes in EPS have the potential to spark change in other companies across the country - and other utilities across the region - thus leading to improved working conditions and job opportunities for women. These changes can also serve as a bright, guiding light toward gender balance in energy and utility companies around the world.