Preschool teacher by day, nail tech by night – just to make ends meet

June 16. 2022. – 09:25 AM


Preschool teacher by day, nail tech by night – just to make ends meet
Éva Gyenes, preschool teacher – Photo by Lujza Hevesi-Szabó / Telex


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According to the statistics, women in Hungary achieve a higher average level of education than men, yet they have a lower employment rate. Overall, they assume lower-ranking positions and earn less in comparison as well. But the problem is much more complex than the pay gap. Invisible labor, old age, working after childbirth, caring for elderly family members – the causes of this glaring inequality are manifold, but with the proper measures, awareness, and actual willpower, they could be gradually reduced.

"I liked science-related subjects, but I also knew I wanted to work with children – I wanted to be a pediatric surgeon most of all. The main reason I ended up going into preschool education was that, once I settled down with someone, the importance of my job's salary or social prestige fell by the wayside. The primary consideration was to have a job that I could go back to after giving birth and not to fall behind professionally because of having taken a few years off," says Éva Gyenes, a preschool teacher whose career choice and subsequent trajectory can be considered typical in many ways as they illustrate how role expectations influence the position of women in the labor market. Éva has been a preschool teacher for more than thirty years. She is one in a hundred who makes it to a leadership position in the institution, but over the decades that her work history spans she too has had to confront many career-related obstacles that plague women in particular.

The salary of a preschool teacher was abysmal even before the end of Communism in Hungary [in 1989]: at the start of her career, Éva managed to bring home roughly 10% of her husband's earnings, which did not even cover their mortgage payments at the time. Those who didn't have a husband with a better income "either starved or were forced to live with their parents," she recalls. Thanks to her husband's job, they were soon able to start a life of their own, having two children while they were still relatively young. Éva stayed at home with them for three years, following which she was able to return to the preschool and managed to climb a few rungs of the ladder. Her salary, however, remained meager, even when taking into consideration the extra few thousand of forints she received for her seniority.

The situation became difficult after Éva and her husband divorced, leaving her to raise two school-age children on her own. At the same time, she was also buried in work related to a training course she was taking in public education leadership in order to advance her career. "My salary as a preschool teacher and the modest child support payments were scarcely enough to provide for my children, so I looked for a second job." By day, she managed 20-25 children as a preschool teacher – by night, i.e. from 9 p.m. until 2 a.m., she worked as a cleaner. The physical and mental exertion that this required could not be sustained for long: Éva was so drained that she had to make a change. She started studying again, and with the extra income coming in from her counseling work, she has been able to keep her finances in balance to this day. Another reason why these supplemental earnings are crucial for her is that she still has to repay the remaining four years of the 25-year loan she got as part of the divorce property settlement – the kicker is that the monthly installments of 128,000 forints [~320 euros] are comparable to the net salary of a preschool teacher starting out today.


How can women thrive in Hungary? What are their prospects of landing a job, having children, and getting health care? What has Hungary been able to achieve so far with regards to violence against women and the underprivileged? In this five-part series, Telex takes a look at the situation facing women today in five different settings.

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It's no wonder, she says, that teaching isn't getting any new blood. Éva says that the system is cynical in presuming that preschool teaching and many other professions involving caregiving, nursing and education are traditionally seen as feminine responsibilities and that many women derive pleasure from them. "These spheres of activity really have a lot to offer emotionally," she says. It's just that fewer and fewer people can afford the luxury of working because of this or simply out of love. "As a preschool director, it's absolutely absurd to see about 20% of one's staff go give massages, work on nails, or apply false eyelashes after the school day in order to make ends meet because preschool is merely their first shift," she adds.

Éva feels that the problem is systemic and shows both that her colleagues are hesitant to speak out against the lack of appreciation and that, although it is mainly women who do "the fieldwork", decisions are made by men. "As women and as educators, we cannot get our voices to be heard; even if we manage to do so, we are subsequently suppressed, given promises or just considered foolish." A preschool teacher's salary is meager as a start in life in the same way as it is for establishing and maintaining an independent existence – but even at around fifty, a woman's career options are very limited. "We took care of my father for six and a half years. In 2021, I was traveling from Dunaújváros to Szabadegyháza every day for months on end. I dressed his bedsores and nursed his wounds," recalls Éva, alluding to the fact that unseen, uncompensated labor in the home is also a "privilege" for women over 50 and strongly influences the types of jobs they take up. "For more money, you can go into, say, catering, and you can work weekends, but then who is going to take care of the aging parents and later, the grandchildren? When the people in my age bracket retire, there will be no one left to work in preschools."

Teaching, childhood education, and caregiving are expected by society – but not valued

When looking at the situation women face in the labor market, there are four points worth noting: the trends in education, employment, career prospects, and earnings. To summarize the data from Eurostat: On average, women have a higher level of education, yet they have a lower employment rate and are more likely to be unemployed; overall, they occupy lower-ranking positions and earn less than men. To put it in more nuanced terms: on average in the EU, 33% of women and 29% of men have a tertiary education. Despite this, the employment rate for men is higher than that for women: in 2016, the rates were 72 and 61 percent respectively, and the difference between the two figures increases with the number of children. Furthermore, the unemployment rate in the EU is also slightly higher for women (8.7%) than it is for men (8.4%). In their work, men tend to hold higher positions than women: in 2016, women made up one-third (33%) of executives in the EU, and this figure didn't reach 50% in any one of the Member States (Hungary's was 39%). On average, women earn 16% less than men, and the biggest differences were in the hourly earnings of managers: in this sphere, women earned 23% less than men.

When we compare the situation of women and men in the labor market, we mostly think of the pay gap, when in fact the problem is much more complex, says Dr. Beáta Nagy, economist-sociologist and professor at Corvinus University.

"Two of the most widely known dimensions of gender inequality in careers are horizontal and vertical segregation, which are more commonly known as the glass wall or glass ceiling phenomena. Horizontal segregation refers to the idea that women and men typically choose different occupations and career paths, and there are rarely bridges between them. This is the glass wall. The problem with this is that different occupations have different earning potentials. So while women tend to work in the public sector – or in sectors related to teaching, early childhood education, caregiving and public administration – men are more likely to work in the private sector and in technical and IT-related occupations. Vertical segregation refers to the idea that women's advancement up the organizational hierarchy is much more constrained than men's. This is also known as the glass ceiling, an invisible but very strong barrier blocking the path of women. These two factors are interlinked in the labor market. Women are a little less likely to hold leadership roles, and when they do, it is in the public sector and in so-called feminized fields where their earning potential is lower than men's."

Other important indicators include age and education (not the level but rather in what field): a man's career is generally more predictable and steady, meanwhile a woman's career path is more fraught with life events that restrain or block advancement. "With that said, the pay gap is a very vivid illustration of the inequalities. We are talking about a difference of around 15-16% in Europe and Hungary as well, and a part of this is accounted for, but part of it isn't," continues Beáta Nagy. The former includes the fact that women tend to work in the – for the most part, public – sectors with the lowest hourly wages: education, public administration, health, and social work – in other words, sectors where men also don't earn much. "The difference here is a chicken-or-egg problem: it would be difficult to say whether these professions were feminized first and then wages became lower, or vice versa. But even if we don't know the causal direction, the coexistence of the two is clear and shows that society no longer values teaching, early childhood education, and caregiving, even though it expects these services," she adds.

A gender issue or a career problem

The other factor often playing a role in the pay gap (and that is difficult to justify) is the fact that women's career paths are disrupted by childbearing or other family responsibilities. There are several such hiatuses, and they result in a lagging behind that is manifested in the growing pay gap. Judit Krekó, an economist at the Budapest Institute and the Center for Economic and Regional Research, highlights the disparity in employment rates. The gender employment gap in Hungary is not only significant, but, unlike in most OECD countries, it has not even narrowed over the past decade. And the employment rate of women with children under three is particularly high by international standards.

"Compared to other European countries, women here still tend to return to the labor market much later after having children, often after the children turn three. And the prolonged stay at home makes re-entry substantially more difficult. Long-term absence worsens a woman's career and salary outlook. By their late forties, the employment gap between men and women is significantly reduced, but the negative impact of the loss of experience due to motherhood continues to be reflected in pay later in life," she says.

Later on, again, it is also mainly women who bear the burden of caring for elderly or sick family members and its consequences in the labor market. In comparison with other countries, the Hungarian state plays a notably small role in the care for the elderly. The rest is borne by families, and women in particular. "In addition to care responsibilities, the main reason why the employment gap widens again as we approach retirement age is the 'Women 40' program, which permits women to retire early," adds the expert.

One of the reasons why the above disparities have not decreased in recent years in this country is that

"when contemporary politics reflects on the status of women, it focuses almost exclusively on the status of mothers and the role of women in the family,"

– emphasizes Beáta Nagy. This is why politics deflects important gender equality issues such as violence, promotion to positions of leadership, or even care work and other forms of invisible labor. The latter issues are labeled as 'gender issues' and are kept out of the ideological direction of family policy. This is despite the fact that addressing these issues and achieving greater gender equality in the labor market could also serve as family policy objectives.

"Research shows that in recent decades, fertility rates have been higher in countries where women have a better chance of balancing family and work commitments and where family responsibilities are shared more equally between men and women. And measures to facilitate coordination increase both the incentives to have children and the activity of women in the labor market," points out Judit Krekó. Despite all of Hungary's efforts to promote pro-family policies, the population has been declining for a long time.

Long-term absence from work for women is a complex problem, as there are, of course, a good number of women among the long-term absentees for whom it is a conscious and joyful decision to stay at home with their children for even up to three years. But those who want to return earlier face significant obstacles, not only because their career "passes them by," but also, for example, due to the limited capacity of daycare centers. The opportunity for women to retire earlier also illustrates the traditional value system behind the measures: the benefit reinforces the notion that women are the ones who should be solely responsible for family care even after their working years.

According to Judit Krekó, the key to solving the problems outlined above would be the establishment of high-quality daycare centers, the promotion of flexible forms of employment (part-time work, working from home), the improvement of the quality and accessibility of elderly care, and the eradication of occupational segregation – one of the first important steps of which being the adjustment of salaries in the education, social service, and health sectors. It is also important that fathers shoulder more of the responsibilities related to the home and the children. Policy measures might be of some use here – such as increasing paternity leave – but we also need to rethink our beliefs in these matters. In order to raise the prestige of professions that have become feminized and to ensure that those who work in them don't have to take on undignified secondary jobs as well, pay rises cannot be put off any longer – the impact of such measures could be appreciated relatively quickly. A good example of this is Romania, where the rapid salary growth in recent years (a result of which being that a Romanian teacher is now able to earn more than their Hungarian counterpart) was immediately reflected in career-choice preferences.

This article is the second in a series of Telex articles on the situation facing women in Hungary today. You can find the first article here.

The lives of women and men in Europe
Labor market mirror; Károly Fazekas, Ágnes Szabó-Morvai
OECD family database

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The translation of this article was made possible by our cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation.