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Why do Polish women lag behind?

Poland has few prominent women in politics or business.

A woman peruses her ballot during elections for the European Parliament at the polling station in Warsaw, Poland, on June 7, 2009. A bill in parliament would mandate that a half or a third of the names on Polish ballots be women. (Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images)

WARSAW, Poland — Polish women have long been placed on a pedestal — hand kissing only went out of fashion in the last decade — but that does not translate into senior positions in politics and business.

That’s why the Polish parliament is considering a bill that would mandate that either half or a third of places on electoral lists be reserved for women. But the move has aroused enormous controversy — even within the ruling centrist Civic Platform party — and it looks unlikely to become law before local elections at the end of this year.

“Parity is not a priority,” quipped Waldy Dzikowski, a senior party member.

Women have about a fifth of the seats in the lower house of the Polish parliament and less than 10 percent of the places in the Senate, lower than in many western European countries. There is pressure to change that, as Donald Tusk, the prime minister, has recognized.

“My dream is for half of the first places on Civic Platform’s electoral lists to be for women and half for men,” Tusk said recently.

In a small sign of change, Agnieszka Pomaska recently defeated Jaroslaw Walesa, the son of Poland’s legendary Solidarity labor union leader and Nobel laureate, for the post of Civic Platform party chief in the north of the country.

Even Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the traditionalist leader of the right-wing Law and Justice opposition party, has tried to make more places for women in his party. In a campaign aimed at softening the party’s often abrasive image, Kaczynski last year launched the “angels” campaign, with three senior women featured prominently in the party’s advertising. Nothing much came of that attempt, but Grazyna Gesicka, a woman, remains the head of the party’s parliamentary wing.

But in this traditionally Roman Catholic country, advancing women is proving to be a tough slog. Michal Stuligrosz, a member of Civic Platform, has said that the “natural role of a woman is to care for the warm family hearth, and the man to be earning for the family.”

There are also questions about how any law mandating equality on electoral lists would actually work, and if it would have any impact on increasing the representation of women in parliament. Unlike in the United States, Poles choose from regional lists of candidates put together by party barons, with only one or two names on a list of 20 or more candidates actually making it into parliament.