Connecting, inspiring and empowering women to lead the way

Viktorija Šmatko-Abaza

15 Mar 2013 14:52 | Deleted user

WIL member Viktorija Šmatko-Abaza joined the European Commission's Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities in March 2007 as Director responsible for audit, controls and evaluation. She is now the Directorate’s Principal Adviser.

European Network for Women in Leadership (WIL): You grew up in Lithuania while it was still part of the Soviet Union. How is Lithuania doing today in comparison to the rest of European? What was it like for you during the transition period and how did it impact your career?

Viktorija Šmatko-Abaza (VSA): Lithuania turned 1000 years old in 2009. In this millennium, my motherland has experienced times of glory and fame, and the centuries of occupation and disparity. My upbringing, education, career development, social and family life are related to Lithuania, its past, present and future.

On 11th March 1990, the year before the break-up of the Soviet Union, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare independence. In 2004-2007, Lithuania became a part of the European Union (EU) and the Schengen area. Over the last 23 years, the Republic of Lithuania’s overall transition to greater economic freedom has been facilitated by structural reforms, an efficient regulatory system, fiscal and business freedom, competitive taxation - all contributing to a vibrant economy. Today, Lithuania is part of the common EU market, ensuring unrestricted movement of goods, services, capital, and dividends within the EU.

Lithuania is ranked 36th in the world based on nine different criteria: the cost of living, culture and leisure, economy, environment, freedom, health, infrastructure, safety, risk, and climate. Vilnius is acknowledged as the capital city breathing Europe’s cleanest air and the greenest among the new EU members. Our people are among the most multilingual and most educated in the EU, as Lithuania has the highest share of the EU population aged 25 — 64 that has completed at least upper secondary education - that's 92 percent! Lithuania possesses world leading information and communication technology (ICT) resources and infrastructure, registering the world’s fastest internet download speed and the world’s second fastest internet upload speed, Europe’s No. 1 fiber to the home (FTTH) optic communication penetration, highest fiber optic density, and Europe’s densest network of public Internet access points (875) in 2011.

WIL: On 17th May 2009, Dalia Grybauskaite was elected the first female Lithuanian president. How do you think that women in political leadership positions can inspire other women as role models?

VSA: That's an excellent question! Actually, my role model is Dalia Grybauskaite. When it comes to motivating young women and men, she leads by example. She is a role model for the success of the individual who works hard, who is an outstanding professional, wise politician, intelligent manager, and a beautiful and kind woman.

Her attitudes, ambitions, achievements have a powerful and inspirational effect on women leaders everywhere, and make a compelling case for enforcing female quotas on corporate boards and in politics. As of today, 11 European countries – Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Austria and Slovenia – have introduced legal instruments to promote gender quality on company boards. Lithuania is on its way as well.

WIL: As a Director of the European Social Fund (ESF) at the DG for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities of the European Commission (DG EMPL) you have been responsible for the allocation of resources to projects and policies in the field of employment and social inclusion, such as the integration of women into the labor market. Does the funding of these projects correspond to the priorities among the different EU Member States or do they also function as incentives? More importantly, how successful are they?

VSA: For over 50 years, the European Social Fund (ESF) has made important contributions to improving the situation of women in the labor market, social protection and social inclusion. In the ESF programming for 2007-2013, funding is focused on a) gender mainstreaming, which incorporates the gender dimension into all ESF priorities; and b) specific actions aimed at getting women into work and sustaining them there.

To achieve these objectives, the ESF is supporting projects in Member States: promoting women's employment - access to, and participation in, all levels of the labor market; promoting women entrepreneurs and women's participation in science and technology - in particular in decision-making positions; combating gender stereotypes in career selection and the professions and promoting lifelong learning; and, reconciling work and family life and offering support for childcare facilities and careers of dependents.

To illustrate, I'd like to mention a number of successful projects: "Helping young mums overcome barriers to learning"; "‘Initiative’ is a female noun"; "Working for family welfare"; "Nurturing families, nurturing opportunities", "Creating chances for women, changing attitudes to women" and many other good projects in 27 EU Member States.

WIL: Can you recommend any new tools or strategies to ensure the effective use of resources in international organizations and administrations?

VSA: Good leadership and management are about providing direction to, and gaining commitment from staff and stakeholders, facilitating change and achieving better services through efficient, creative and responsible deployment of people and other resources. The use of internal temporary Task Forces to identify the main challenges, collect information, conduct an in-depth analysis and recommend improvements to one or several specific areas could lead to simplifying and increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of operations.

For example, from June – October 2012, I chaired a Task Force on financial management and execution in DG EMPL. The Task Force sought an increase in the efficiency and rationalization of tasks, ranking priorities and identifying possible savings. We focused on: financial circuits; roles of financial agents; internal procedures, manuals and forms; procurement and grants procedures, processes and management; financial monitoring and reporting for centralized and joint management; analytical reporting/statistics by budget line; good COM practices. Our recommendations for changes and improvements and an estimate of resource savings, where relevant and possible, were presented to and approved by the Board and the Director General.

Since November 2012, the implementation of our recommendations have already led to an increased efficiency of procurement and contracting supported by experienced financial professionals; have ensured business continuity and presence of institutional memory; have increased motivation of staff on board; and have decreased time and money investment when recruiting and retraining newcomers.

Therefore, better leadership and management are the keys to ensure the effective use of resources and achieve measurable results in international organizations and administrations.

WIL: Among your duties as Director at DG EMPL was the overview of the process of accreditation for EU candidate and pre-accession countries. What will be the consequences of the expansion of the EU to new Member States?

VSA: The EU Enlargement Strategy provides for mutual benefits of deeper trade integration, a larger internal market, economies of scale and expanded investment and job opportunities. The two main objectives of financial Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) are to support the accession process and the socio-economic development of the beneficiaries. Strengthening the rule of law and democratic governance is central to the enlargement process. The key challenges for the new Member States would be putting the rule of law at the center of enlargement policy: judicial system, anti-corruption, fight against organized crime, public administration reform, fundamental rights, etc. Another main challenge is economic and social recovery.

WIL: You also hold a certification in retirement plans. With Europe facing an ageing population/demography, what will be the consequences of that development? How does the Directorate for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities support the inclusion of older people into the labor market?

VSA: The European Union is facing unprecedented demographic changes (an ageing population, low birth rates, changing family structures and migration). In light of these challenges it is important, both at the EU and the national level, to review and adapt existing policies. On 20th February 2013, the European Commission presented a Communication on a Social Investment Package (SIP) that addresses five priorities, namely: 1) Increasing the sustainability and adequacy of budgets for social policies; 2) Pursuing activating and enabling policies and providing adequate livelihoods; 3) Intervening across the life course, starting with children and youth; 4) Innovating and reforming social policy based on evidence; and 5) Promoting a strong social investment approach within the EU funds allocation. The SIP is based on the thinking that we need to modernize the European social model so that it mobilizes a larger share of Europe's human capital and raises its productivity, while at the same time ensuring social inclusion of disadvantaged people and an adequate level of social protection.

WIL: The European targets for 2020 also include the goal to have 75% of the EU population in employment. What are the biggest challenges for reaching this goal?

VSA: The main challenge is youth unemployment in the EU. The youth unemployment rate is more than twice as high as the rate for adults (22.8 % versus 9.2 % in the third quarter of 2012) and has dramatically increased over the last four years. Certain groups of the young population (including women, young people with disabilities, and youth with migrant background) are particularly exposed to the risks of unemployment, long-term unemployment, early school leaving or inactivity. Young people are over-represented in temporary and part-time work. This can lead to segmented labor markets. In 2010 and 2011, high unemployment levels co-existed with increased difficulties in filling vacancies. However, between now and 2020, it is estimated that there will be 73 million job openings due to retirement of workers. These will need to be filled with appropriately qualified new staff, thus also creating new opportunities for young people.

Another challenge is inequality between women and men. Getting more women into the labor market helps counterbalance the effects of a shrinking working-age population, thereby reducing the strain on public finances and social protection systems, widening the human capital base and raising competitiveness. Measures to facilitate work-life balance can have a positive impact on fertility. To reach the Europe 2020 objective of a 75% employment rate for women and men, particular attention needs to be given to the labor market participation of older women, single parents, women with a disability, migrant women and women from ethnic minorities. The employment rates of these groups are still relatively low and remaining gender gaps need to be reduced in both quantitative and qualitative terms.

DG EMPL proposed a number of initiatives to address these challenges (see Communication from the Commission: Moving Youth into Employment (2012)): Youth Opportunities Initiative (YOI) - a stronger cooperation with Member States for the delivery of action tackling the very high youth unemployment rates; Youth Employment Package (YEP): Youth Guarantee; Quality Framework for Traineeships (QFT); The European Alliance for Apprenticeships - is meant to improve the supply and quality of apprenticeships across the EU as well as to promote national partnerships for dual vocational training systems, building on good practices existing in a number of Member States (e.g. AT, DE, DK); a revised European Job Mobility (EURES) portal, etc.

WIL: Which sectors are the most promising in terms of job creation? How can women's potential be effectively used in these areas?

VSA: ICT experts are an essential pillar of the modern workforce and the European economy as a whole. However, many open vacancies for ICT practitioners cannot be filled, despite the high level of unemployment in Europe. Forecasts predict that there may be between 400,000 - 800,000 open vacancies for ICT jobs by 2015 if no action is taken. While demand for ICT practitioners is growing by around 3% a year, the number of graduates from computing sciences is actually declining. The European Commission also wants more to be done across Europe to inspire young women to be interested in pursuing ICT careers, since they are currently underrepresented in the industry. Today, around 7 million people work in the information and communication (ICT) sector. However, out of the ICT workforce only 30% are women.

Employment structures in EU-27+ are changing. Technicians and associate professionals will be the most important occupational group in 2020 and will account for around 18.1% of total employment. It will also be the fastest growing, as its share of employment is likely to increase by about 1.5% between 2010 and 2020. This group covers highly-skilled occupations such as associate professionals in physical and engineering science, life science and health, teaching, finance and business sectors, as well as public administration (Kriechel, 2012).

WIL: Recent OECD data indicates that often skills learned in an academic setting do not correspond to the skills needed in the labor market. How can we bridge the gap between education and work?

VSA: EU Education Ministers met on 15th February 2013 to discuss relevant issues concerning education in the context of the 2013 Annual Growth Survey. The conclusions adopted are a response to the Commission communication "Rethinking Education" presented in November 2012 and highlighting priority areas for education and training reform with particular emphasis on improving overall skills and competence levels in order to boost employability and reduce youth unemployment.

The recent CEDEFOP demand and supply forecasts show considerable potential for skill mismatch in Europe in 2020. With rapid technological progress and lags in the education and training process, skill imbalances between sectors and in new or emerging occupations are likely to arise. At the same time, micro level skill mismatches are an inevitable consequence of the imperfect nature of the job search process in the labor market. This is likely to lead to a rapid increase in people with high-level qualifications employed in jobs traditionally requiring a lower skill level, certainly in the short term, and a sharp fall in jobs for people with low-level or no qualifications. In addition, an ageing labor force has to keep up with changing skill demands and new technology. Consequently, adult workers will need opportunities not just to retrain, but also to re-qualify for different occupations. Accordingly, policy-makers may need to ensure that improvements in qualification levels are realized and that investment in initial education, continuing training and adult education continues.

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