Shaping Europe’s Future: Female Perspectives at the Danube Salon, Europa-Forum Wachau 2024

Another year, another edition of the Danube Salon at the Europa-Forum Wachau, an annual discussion meeting held in Lower Austria that promotes exchange and debate on European issues. On Friday, 22 June 2024, for the fourth consecutive year, IDM had the honour of moderating a round of debates and discussions during the final day of the Forum. This time the discussion “Change the Point of View – Women’s Insights into the Future of Europe” focused on female perspectives on Europe and its future. Our moderators were Sebastian Schäffer, Director of the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe (IDM), and Sophia Beiter, Research Associate at IDM, in conversation with a panel of renowned experts and practitioners deeply involved in the topic of women’s leadership in Europe. 

The opening speeches and “The Next Generation is Female” network 

Johanna Mikl-Leitner, Governor of Lower Austria, and Karoline Edtstadler, Federal Minister for the EU and Constitution were present together with the network of European Ministers “The Next Generation is Female”. This project, launched by Federal Minister Edtstadler in 2022, gathers female ministers and politicians from all over Europe to coordinate and work together for the future of the next generations. In their opening speeches, Mikl-Leitner and Edtstadler provided their perspectives on the crucial role of female leadership in the European Union.  

Mikl-Leitner shared her experience as Governor of Lower Austria. Reaching positions such as hers is always difficult, she affirmed, because “you have to give more than 100% to compete with men, whereas, for them, even 90% is enough.” On the other hand, now, as a Governor, she can provide help to women needing support, bringing more women into leadership positions. In her opinion, what young ladies need the most are financial independence and education, a theme that recurred throughout the rest of the debate. The network launched by Federal Minister Edtstadler offers an opportunity to give visibility to these issues and the opportunities they can bring. 

Edtstadler continued the conversation, first reminding the audience that “it is not important to be the first woman in a position like this: it is important to be not the last one.” Her speech focused on her network “The Next Generation is Female.” She explained how this project shows the necessity of having a gender balance and lets women work together to reach this objective. Men should not see this goal as something “against” them because having a balance would help all European citizens to unite and strengthen our societies and economies. Results like these can be seen in practice in Ukraine, where since the beginning of the war, women and men have been working together to resist the Russian invasion, both in the military and in civil society.  

The roundtable: women’s insights into the future of Europe 

After these two speeches, the main roundtable discussion took place. The debate, moderated by Sophia Beiter, saw the participation of four important experts: Marina Rožić, Secretary General of Hrvatska gospodarska komora and Chair of the Eurochambers Women’s Network (Croatia); Milena Kadieva, Managing Director, DA Foundation – Together Against Violence (Bulgaria); Cristina Chiariac, President of CONAF (Romania); Ana Revenco, Director of the Center for Strategic Communication and Combating Disinformation (Republic of Moldova). 

In the introductory round of statements, they all provided their views on the importance of female perspectives in leadership. Among the various advantages, giving the same opportunities to men and women would translate into economic growth (as the European Institute for Gender Equality recently affirmed) and a stronger push towards innovation, thanks to the richer and more varied pool of expertise and knowledge it would provide. It means creating the “best team” of women and men without excluding anyone because of their gender. This objective can be reached, even if it still seems far: European countries have seen many improvements in the past years, in particular thanks to better education and training and to the increased collaboration between women on these issues. The networks and organisations which our guests direct, together with their achievements, are clear examples of the potential of networking and role models. 

Role models and the importance of communication 

As the second question tackled the issues of male-dominant presence in business leadership, Rožić delved more deeply into the importance of role models. They permit the creation of a change in the mindset, which is the first wall that needs to be overcome. In a society such as the Croatian one, where women already have a high level of education, the issue is to provide them with the courage and knowledge necessary to get into the society’s top positions. One instrument, she proposed, would be creating better systems of networking for women that can let them into the informal circles of company boards. Kadieva and Chiariac reiterated the role of mentality changes in society. Kadieva, in particular, provided the example of victims of gender-based violence, who are seen as vulnerable by society and thus unable to contribute as leaders because of their “weakness”, and both highlighted the changes that can be made and are being made at the educational, economic and legislative levels, even in the EU (such as with the last two directives tackling the gender pay gap and the gender balance among companies directors). 

Revenco was then the first one to discuss gender issues in the field of communication. As the Republic of Moldova fights against the influence of Russian propaganda, it can understand the value that both male and female experts can provide together in this struggle. This collaboration is even more important when we consider that gender-based stereotypes are greatly used to feed disinformation and undermine women in leadership positions, and our democratic systems with them. The conversation continued with Rožić and Chiariac, who addressed how certain tools, such as the “quotas” (measures used by countries and parties to increase women’s representation in politics and job market) , even if they seem counterproductive, are still necessary to facilitate the mentality changes we need. 

Discussion with the public and final remarks 

Finally, the public contributed with some questions, particularly asking how men can support gender equality. The main answer is, once again, “education”: a word that is valid for everyone, from a very early age, when children should learn to show and not hide their potential, and throughout life when the scope of education should be to give the same opportunities to everyone, in an inclusive process. Together with education goes solidarity, not in the name of some slogans, but of the benefits that gender equality will bring to the lives of everyone. 

The last question, by Sophia Beiter, was a personal one, which underlined the role of our four guests as role models themselves: “What was your biggest challenge as a leader, and how did you get over it?” For Marina Rožić, the roles she had were difficult to take, implying big challenges and changes, but we should not be scared of changes: “They are steps forward that we can take.” For Milena Kadieva, her experience spoke for itself: in her path, she always had to overcome people’s perceptions that studying law was not the right career for a woman, nor was working as a lawyer. But she reached her objectives anyway, because it is not about gender: it is a matter of abilities, and “when you show it, people finally appreciate”. In the case of Cristina Chiariac, the biggest step was the need to “lose a part of my femininity” because a woman entrepreneur needs to be tough and embrace her “masculine” side. But when you learn from your mistakes, you can then overcome them easier. The final answer from Ana Revenco was a reminder for everyone: “Having the privilege of doing what you dreamed of is a dream”, as it is serving a higher cause, and this is what pushed her in front of her challenges. 

Sophia Beiter and Sebastian Schäffer, in their closing remarks, expressed gratitude to the EFW team, the cooperation partners and especially the ARGE Donauländer, as well as the esteemed guests who made the event possible and represented, with their experiences, real models for all of us. Sebastian Schäffer also recognised and thanked his team for their invaluable contributions to enabling the success of the event and invited everyone to enjoy the rest of the evening. 

 

Written by: Francesco Danieli