The European Union’s investment arm is helping female entrepreneurs break the glass ceiling in a key part of Poland’s $586 billion economy.
Poland’s track record is mixed when it comes to empowering women. The country boasts one of the lowest gender pay gaps in the developed world, yet females remain under-represented in leadership positions in business and politics.
The European Investment Bank is targeting leasing — which serves as a lifeline for Poland’s small- and mid-size businesses. The EU bank recently agreed deals with two leasing companies to dedicate funds to businesses owned or led by women.
“We’ve noticed recently that women’s economic empowerment has worked very well with leasing companies,” Erik Welin, an EIB official, said in an interview. “We can make a positive difference for the Polish economy.”
Last century, traditional Catholic gender roles were reshaped by socialist campaigns calling on women to drive tractors and help build a new society. While the communist-run economy collapsed, it helped change mindsets about working women.
Still, gender equality as a whole is below the EU average in Poland and progressing more slowly than in other member states, according to the European Institute for Gender Equality.
In the 31 years since communism, Poland has had three female and 13 male prime ministers. The country has one of Europe’s strictest anti-abortion laws but attempts to tighten the legislation further in 2018 triggered massive protests by women, forcing ruling party politicians to abandon their plans.
Leasing is the most important source of financing for almost two-thirds of small and medium-sized Polish businesses, according to Andrzej Sugajski, the head of the country’s leasing lobby ZPL.
Yet Polish leasing companies don’t have easy access to funding because of the relatively underdeveloped local capital market and limited access to bank loans. This creates room for the EIB program, Welin said.
Last month, the EIB guaranteed a 2.1 billion zloty ($551 million) synthetic securitization deal by Wroclaw-based Europejski Fundusz Leasingowy SA on the condition that some of the new financing will be dedicated to women entrepreneurs and women-led businesses. A similar clause was included in a 100-million-euro ($111 million) loan the EIB provided to Bank Pekao SA’s leasing arm in December.
“Polish leasing companies often don’t have standalone credit ratings,” he said. “They don’t have bond issuance programs and therefore are happy to work with international financial institutions like us.”