On a quest for female empowerment

Meet Katerina Papanikolau from Greece

Katerina Papanikolau on creating a more tolerant, healthier environment for people via female empowerment, human rights, and upskilling  

Ancient Greece is the birthplace of democracy – it gave the world the foundation of a system where individuals can express their opinions and craft politics which reflect their society’s needs and rights as much as possible.

Despite this rich legacy, contemporary Greece, like other countries across Southeastern Europe, still has issues to resolve. Katerina Papanikolau is a senior consultant who has examined the topics of female empowerment, human rights, and upskilling for years. She has studied biology, specialised in psychotherapy, and has devoted most of her energy to creating a more tolerant, healthier environment for people. In her perception of Greek society, she identifies areas for improvement: in both politics and within communities, she sees that human rights, particularly female rights, do not receive the respect they require. However, younger generations, with their open minds, are improving this landscape and Katerina plans to start a new project to tap their potential.


Where women belong

Papanikolau cites the fact that Greece ranks last in the European Union on the Gender Equality Index. The country’s rank is 52.2 points out of 100 – more than 15 points below the EU average and, according to the Index’s website, “Its ranking has remained the same since 2010”.

When asked about her own personal experience, she says “I do not think that there is a particular moment in a woman’s life when you actually feel pure discrimination, if you exclude instances of sexual harassment or hate speech”.

However, she explains, there is a traditional perception in Greek society that women should remain at home and that men should go to work. “There is research that shows that more than 50% of Greeks believe that women should stay at home. For me, that is embarrassing. The perception is that if a woman can be supported financially by the husband, it is better to stay at home and take care of the children and her family. There is no need to work”, Katerina explains. Conversations with women in other countries show that this same perception is widespread in the region, within both EU and non-EU member nations.

One professional field undeniably dominated by females is civil society and non-governmental organisations – Katerina calls them “mainly a female game”. Yet that simply contributes to the stereotype that women are usually more empathetic than men and therefore more likely to belong in this sphere.

She adds that female empowerment should not limit itself to giving examples of extraordinary women who have created spectacular things. “I would like to see more cases of how practical actions [in civil society] are connected with the real needs of women. I would like to see more stories of women that did not make it, not just those of successful women. When a woman feels like she has no means, is not equal, or has no support, and then always sees just these best-case scenarios about the most successful women, I am not sure how she is empowered.

In many cases some women feel like: “Okay, I am not like these women so why should I follow this NGO or be part of this movement”. They are always cases of brilliant women, successful women, women with a legacy. I feel [normal women] do not feel a connection, they think that there is a mismatch”, Katerina explains.


Younger people, progress, and solutions

Fortunately, the younger generation seems to be more progressive when it comes to human rights or female empowerment. “I think people who are now 20 to 30 years old are more aware of these topics. They don’t care about sex, race, or skin colour”, the senior consultant explains.

However, Katerina points out that younger people might be more liberal or tolerant, but they can still be victims of years of prejudice and stereotypes. “I am really careful when it comes to unconscious bias. We can find ourselves being biased without even knowing it. I think as a community we should work more on unconscious bias”, she says.

Thus, her opinion is that the focus should not be on those who strongly believe that women belong at home or in the kitchen, but on those who have unconscious bias. She explains that sometimes even progressive people in business may choose men over women, even if the latter are just as skilled or educated. “The bias is in believing that a man is more capable and free, since, even if he has kids, he won’t bring problems to the office because of them. I think you can see this in the way we describe the same behaviour in the professional lives of men and women totally differently”, she adds.

Katerina is now working on a new project aimed at young girls in order to “promote their development, their openness, their confidence in themselves, and their trust in other women or men.” She believes that it is vital to nurture their self-confidence and self- awareness, and to enhance their opportunities to pursue anything that they truly desire “without obstacles, barriers, and stereotypes.” This initiative is being kept secret until it begins. However, she explains that its core will be to help young girls study, participate in social life, and pursue their interests in fashion, art, or science.


Greek politics’ relationship with human rights

Katerina explains that her home country has a long way to go before the conversation about human rights goes through an evolution. “In Greece there are not so many people speaking openly about human rights. Mainly in the last two years we are entering a more genuine conversation about human rights. I am not sure whether there are results, but now we are talking more authentically and genuinely”, she explains.

During our interview, she mentioned that a female Olympic gold medallist had talked publicly about sexual harassment in sports for the first time that very day. “She described the story in full detail and the prime minister said something about how we should safeguard children, girls, and women in sports. I think this is typical for Greece – every time something like this happens, we speak about it very openly and we all share opinions, but I don’t think human rights actually becomes a part of the agenda”, Katerina claims.

She is not quite sure whether women have conquered politics in Greece and have started feeling “at home” there. “I am not sure it is a place for women. We see more women [in politics], and I would say the obstacles for them there have decreased. The perception is that the obstacles are going completely away, that there are no barriers and that [women] can easily enter politics”, she explains. Yet the reality is a bit different. Katerina believes that support is required in order for women to enter political life successfully. “When I say support for women in politics, I mean practical support – so that even if you have children and have to work, you are able to participate. For example, if all the municipal council meetings are held at 10pm at night, then that is a barrier for women who want to be part of that council”, she explains.


From human science to humans

Katerina comes from a scientific background – she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Biology from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. “When I studied biology, I realised that the main advantage I gained from my studies was the capability to focus on specific issues and, at the same time, to broaden my views and have different perspectives on certain issues. All of that made me more adaptable so I could change more easily”, she explains.

For the first few years of her professional career, she worked in the pharmaceutical industry and then she decided to go in a completely new direction. “I was focused on organisational development so I studied it and psychotherapy. I decided I should focus more on training and consulting, so after years of developing my own skills, interests, and career, I am now working as a consultant specialised in upskilling and reskilling people”, she explains. She has been part of academies organised by FNF which further broadened her horizon on human rights.

This is where her true passion lies. She believes everyone should have equal opportunities and not simply be a witness to injustice. “Since childhood, I have been really engaged in politics. I really like to listen to the news, read newspapers, and understand what is happening around me. Seeing so much inequality around, violations of human rights, and hate speech, inequality regarding sex, race, or religion, I decided I should do something”, Katerina says.


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