From Sexting to Sexism

Americans Outraged by Sexual Advance Considered the Norm by Some Czechs

By Erica Gonzales and Marilyn La Jeunesse

The email sent by investor Pavel Curda to entrepreneur Gesche Haas. Photo courtesy of quora.com.

In late August, Gesche Haas, a New York-based entrepreneur working at the design start-up Conjure.io, elicited a firestorm in the U.S. media when she publicized a sexual proposition from Pavel Curda, a Czech investor.

Curda sent Haas an explicit email was sent a few hours after Haas, 27, and Curda, 42, talked business for 20 minutes over drinks at a conference in Berlin this July.

The email’s subject line was: “I really like you,” and the message read: “Hey G.  I will not leave Berlin without having sex with you.  Deal?” followed by Curda’s about.me link in the signature.

When contacted by various media outlets Curda initially denied the email but then confessed after it was revealed that he sent an identical email to another female conference attendee. The email was the subject of articles in American media outlets ranging from Jezebel.com to the New York Post.  The media blog ValleyWag was the first to expose the email and Haas’ story. The article currently has 838 likes on Facebook, 271 comments, and over 186,000 hits.

Commentator’s response to Curda’s come on, and Haas’ own reaction – “we need to publicly agree that this behavior is not okay,” she wrote on the public discussion forum, Medium.com, focused on the sexism and harassment women face in business. But in the small Central European nation where Curda plays matchmaker for tech start-ups and potential funders, he was hailed as a victim who had done nothing out of the ordinary. The contrasting responses illustrate the post-communist distaste for the regulation of sexual behavior in the workplace and a general suspicion of American political correctness.

In Czech society, what Americans would label sexual harassment is considered a private issue between individuals, according to Stop Violence Against Women, a website that promotes women’s rights in Central and Eastern Europe.

“If his clumsy attempt to sex was really the biggest problem for current start-ups, they would congratulate the members of this community.”

Several residents of the Czech capital on their way to work or in Old Town this month agreed.

“The public should not have to know what goes on in a man’s private life. That is just shameful and disrespectful,” said Saimon Souhrada, a 58-year-old Czech engineer and vehicle repairman.  “I think everything was ridiculous.  The women took something small and made it into a big deal. Did the man physically hurt the women?” he said.

“It’s the problem of the two people,” said Vendula Bazova, a 21-year-old architecture student at the Czech Technical University in Prague.  As a female student in a male-dominated university and area of study, she knows discrimination and gender inequality exist in the workplace.  “I don’t think it’s equal, but it’s not a big problem,” she said.

A leading Czech media commentator said Curda was being unfairly demonized. In an article written for Inhed.cz, an online economic newspaper, Milos Cermak argued that the American media unfairly painted Curda as a redneck from the East.

“If his clumsy attempt to sex was really the biggest problem for current start-ups, they would congratulate the members of this community,” Cermak wrote. He also said it was “pretty far-fetched” that Curda’s actions were “representative of gender imbalance in the technology world” and the “chauvinistic environment around startups.”

Cermak’s sentiments reflect the general rejection of citizens in all post-communist countries who had to endure decades of totalitarian governments prying into their lives. Thus, if freedom from regulation means women have to fend off pawing hands or provocative requests, that is not too high of a price to pay, some Czechs believe.

Sexual harassment is among several obstacles Czech women contend with in the workplace, according to several international surveys. They are often judged on their appearance and ability to please men, critics claim, in a society where beauty pageants and supermodels are sacrosanct.

“The word feminism has a very negative connotation. Here it implies you hate men.”

In addition Czech Republic has a pay gap of nearly 22 percent between men and women, according to a Structure of Earnings survey conducted by the European Commission in 2012. This is the fourth largest pay gap of any country in the European Union. (Although Czech pay represents the same gender wage gap of United States as of 2013, according to the Census Bureau Report).

The pay gap in the Czech Republic is often attributed to its three-year maternity policy, allowing women to stay off work but still reclaim their jobs after three years. Although the right to reclaim the work and care for their child is invaluable to many women, having Europe’s longest maternity break has led women to fall economically behind, economists say.

“Gender equality was distorted by Communism. It forced women to work,” Salim Murad, a professor of political science at the University of Southern Bohemia said. “Then many women understood feminism as fighting to work, but being forced to work made them want to stay home.”

Liberation to many women in the Czech Republic is seen as the right not to work, which has created a negative conception about feminism.

“The word feminism has a very negative connotation. Here it implies you hate men,” Jana Ciglerova, a Czech journalist for the leading Czech daily, Mlada fronta dnes, said in an interview with Prague Wandering. “If asked in English, I say of course I’m a feminist. In Czech, I say I’m pro-woman.”

Such diplomacy was not a priority for Haas, who explained why she was ready to step into the limelight and release Curda’s email to the media.

“To change the status quo, we need to draw a line somewhere, and we can’t shy away by the fact that these lines will always be blurry,” she wrote on Medium.com on July 20 under the pseudonym, Be A Man of Honor.

Sarah Gray, an American author at Salon.com, published an article on August 20 that defended Haas for leaking the email and hoped the attention it received would lead to a significant change in the way women are treated in all areas of the workplace.

“In the same way that we must teach our young men not to rape, we must teach them not to harass—and that nobody is entitled to harass,” she wrote. “And if we expect women to open up, we have to do better as a society to let them speak without fear.”

Erica Gonzales is in the NYU College of Arts and Science Class of 2016.  Her hometown is Wyckoff, New Jersey.  

Marilyn La Jeunesse is in the NYU College of Arts and Science Class of 2016.  Her hometown is Laguna Beach, California.

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Categories: Fall 2014 Issue Number 1, News

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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