Equal Opportunities: 3 Years Maternity Leave is a ’Double-edged Sword’


Edina Heal

Edina Heal well remembers her first meeting of global CEOs when working for record company EMI in London. Or rather, she remembers the meeting’s first break. When she walked out to find the washrooms, Heal noticed a queue outside the men’s toilets.

“I was shocked. I thought: what’s going on? I always have to queue, [but] because I was one of just three women EMI managing directors worldwide, I just slid into the ladies’. At the time, nobody even noticed it was an issue,” she recalls more than two decades on.

Even if the full meaning failed to register in the young Hungarian executive’s mind, it was a first, semi-conscious milestone that ultimately led to the establishment, in 2016, of the Equalizer Foundation (Egyenlítő Alapítvány), an institution Heal co-founded that strives for equal opportunities in the workplace.

The foundation today boasts some 350 members, male and female. The Budapest Business Journal sat down with Heal to hear about its efforts to remove the obstacles that women face in pursuing a career in Hungary.

BBJ: It sounds like a naïve question, but what are the disadvantages of a male-dominated company?

Edina Heal: You can only think like a man; you can’t think like a woman. Do we think differently? Not in a way that women are not good at mathematics; we already know that’s not true, even if most of society still believes and acts like that could be the case. But because of our life experiences and what we do, out there in real life, you have societies where most of the women are only at home and doing the house jobs and jobs with children.

BBJ: Getting the water from the well?

EH: Exactly! And most of the men have a gun in their hands.

BBJ: But Hungary is not quite like that!

EH: Not quite, but unfortunately, the rhetoric and guidance right now in this society are also going back to the Middle Ages a bit, trying to push the gender roles in a very traditional way. This is already harmful. This push for more children and that women are responsible for having more children is pretty bad.

BBJ: In terms of women in management, is Hungary lagging statistically?

EH: Hungary is educating a lot of women, like most of the developed world. More than 50% of students at universities are women, and they’re getting better grades. Women are getting higher education, and then, as soon as they get to work, they fall out; they don’t get into management. What is that, if not ignoring the expertise and value of women in the workforce?

And if you make selections of your middle managers, top managers, and your CEOs and your boards, and you gradually wean out the talented women because they don’t fit the criteria of being men, you do not have your best management. You have your preferred management, but you’re not necessarily getting the best talent; you are closing out half the competition. And you’re closing out half of the world view.

BBJ: How does this impact a company?

EH: Women and men use a lot of products and services very differently. They have different bodies, different needs for those bodies, or society has different expectations. I cannot sell you hair colorant, but I can sell me hair colorant. You’re not supposed to dye your hair; I am. In some industries, 80% of purchases are made by women, yet the management of most of those companies are men.

I worked for three years with L’Oréal; they were my biggest client when I was working [in advertising]: every manager and the top manager at L’Oréal at that time was a man. A bald, white man! He never used a face cream or hair product! I loved him in a way, but [...] we would talk about the quality of shampoo, and I’d say: “Yeah, I know, I actually use it!”

BBJ: Have you got statistics to back up your arguments, here and in central Europe?

EH: Right now, it’s only about 8% of women in top management in Hungary. In Central Europe, I don’t have the numbers, and these tend to differ hugely, like who do you consider as a manager? Most of the West is not doing very well either, but much better than this. But if you go up to the Top-500 U.S. companies, you probably get a very similar number at the level of CEO.

If you look at the Hungarian boards, these are almost exclusively male: look at MOL or OTP; no women make it.* Whereas, if you look at OTP middle management, there are women. Some good managers, but smaller teams. Well, they can’t come to our weekend parties, where we shoot animals, can they?

BBJ: What do you feel you’ve achieved in the Equaliser Foundation?

EH: We haven’t achieved much yet. This is a slow change, and we also have a pretty strong headwind since [Prime Minister Viktor] Orbán’s governments [came back to power in 2010]. They seem to believe quite the opposite to be good for society.

If you look at Scandinavia, this is a really nice testament to what more egalitarian countries can achieve. But yeah, we’d like to have more women in leadership in this country. The main issue here is awareness building because people like you don’t know anything about this topic. Our prime minister, people in most companies even today, who have the power and who could make the changes are not aware this is an issue.

We are not using our resources to the maximum. We bring up these women, who are clever, able and want to do something, and then we send them home.

And then we give them this horribly long maternity leave, which seems to be a beautiful thing, but it’s a trap in the sense of if you want to have women in politics and management to lead our countries and bring in policies that will actually be good for women, mothers, children and fathers.

BBJ: And for a more balanced, healthy society?

EH: Exactly. If these women go home, have three, four children, they are away for the most active part of their careers, and they never make it back, unfortunately. And then there come the mental issues because these women are going to be extremely frustrated. They have the brain, vision and energy, and they are not able to use it. We have really big divorce rates in this country; that’s not good for families or society, is it?

In Poland, for example, they have six months [maternity leave]. Women, if they start a career, can stay in their career. And when companies are hiring, they don’t have such grounds to discriminate against hiring a young woman as they have here.

In Hungary, women are not being hired because [in the minds of potential employers] they will have children. These companies have to keep these women on their books. So therefore, the three-year maternity leave is a double-edged sword: it’s really hurting this country.

*The BBJ checked these companies’ websites: MOL lists 10 people on its board of directors, all males. The OTP executive board has six members, again, all men. (It does have one woman among its seven-person non-executive board.)

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of April 22, 2022.

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