Russian women need a revolution of the mind
Oksana Pushkina – a television and radio journalist, a State Duma deputy, and one of the founders of Zhenskyi vzglyad, a women’s empowerment foundation (translates as “Woman’s view”) – talked to Capital Ideas about the real situation on the Russian labor market, explaining why it’s necessary to create a strategy to support women’s entrepreneurship and how to provide legal protection for women in business.
What can you tell us about gender discrimination in Russia?
In Russia, de juro equality between men and women does not exist. Opportunities and chances for success are far greater for men than for women. The conservative parts of Russia society do not accept the concept of “gender,” and it’s not included in our legislation either. In one way or another, modern research uses the concept of “gender” in order to assess the balance between opportunities for women and men in society. The World Bank’s latest “Women, Business, and the Law” report contains a rating of countries in terms of gender equality. The countries were assessed in accordance with the following criteria: freedom of movement, employment, pay, family law, maternity leave, business, asset management, and retirement benefits. In this ranking, Russia scored 73.1 points, landing being between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Despite the progress achieved in the education of women and the protection of motherhood, working women in Russia are not sufficiently protected. The difference in salaries, discrimination in hiring, sexual harassment – all of this still exists. The problem of discrimination is especially noticeable in STEM fields such as manufacturing, science, or politics.
For example, according to data from the Russian Federal State Statistics Service, women in Russia, on average, receive almost a third less than men working in the same positions, and receive about half of what men get in bonuses. In addition, women are much less likely to become leaders, especially top managers.
Maybe women just don’t want to pursue careers as much as men? Maybe they’re more focused on family and children?
We need to stop pretending the problem doesn’t exist and justifying the situation with Constitutional equality between citizens and excuses like “women just don’t want to.”
Men account for 46% of Russian society, but the structure of their occupations is very specific. There are professions that are strictly “male,” where there are hardly any women at all. I was recently discussing this subject with famous Russian political scientists. According to their data, nearly half of all men in Russia work in Ministry of Defense, the Prosecutor General’s Office, the FSB, the police, the Investigative Committee, the Rosguard, the FSO, the Tax Inspectorate, and are listed as security guards in schools, and now in churches. Another quarter are directors of some kind, and 10% are drivers. Another 5% are priests, athletes, and actors. So no more than 10% of men are working in the real economy.
In the modern world, it is women who are drivers of social change and education, and Russia is no exception in this regard. Think about who is more likely to work in charitable organizations in the spheres of children’s healthcare, environmental conservation, or animal protection. It’s women. Who is more likely to volunteer? Also women! Women are the majority across most humanitarian spheres of public life.
Women are more hardworking than men. According to data from the World Economic Forum report, on average we work for 50 minutes longer than men every day, and for 39 days longer every year. Of course, this takes into account unpaid domestic labor. In reality, behind the famous argument about women’s “true calling” is nothing but simple exploitation of women’s labor.
There are more women than men in Russia – we make up 54% of the population. I am certain that we could make a much bigger contribution into the country’s development from both a social and an economic perspective. I see serious prospects for a breakthrough here, the need for which we keep hearing about lately. But in order to make this breakthrough happen, we need to ensure that men and women really have equal opportunities.
In your opinion, what are the reasons we’re in this situation?
The main stronghold of inequality is the stereotype imposed on most Russian girls since childhood: a woman’s place is in her husband’s bed, by the cradle, and in the kitchen. It’s possible to have a life like this as well, but women must have choices: an education and a successful career, or a wealthy husband who will provide for her, which is also ok, so long as it is a conscious life choice and not her only realistic option. But in the second case the woman won’t become independent in the financial, psychological, or any other sense.
And dependence on a man is also the main cause of domestic violence. Domestic violence is much more likely in situations of full dependency because the perpetrator knows his victim doesn’t have a choice to leave. So in these situations, it becomes a vicious cycle. Having gained power over a woman, some men eventually begin to abuse her. It happens that people get divorced, and if this happens, it is important that the woman is financially and economically protected.
From time immemorial, women in Russia have been considered the “keepers of the hearth,” whose main task is to produce healthy offspring. These social attitudes are handed down from generation to generation and form in their own way a convenient and prosperous model of life, in which a woman takes a passive stance, with everything provided by the man. But the world is developing by its own laws, and everything changes very quickly. Men do not take care of themselves: they are at war, more often they abuse alcohol, do not take care of their health, put their lives at risk, and as a result they die earlier. There are more women, and the traditional model of life is not for everyone. Because there are few men, and even fewer decent men who are ready take on a full provider role. As a result, we have a choice: to continue living without noticing the changes taking place, or to reconsider the role of women, giving them real opportunities and incentives for self-fulfillment.
All of the debates about women in Russia arise from the conflict of two ways of thinking: the traditional “women are mothers before all else” and the new “women are people before all else.” I respect both positions, and I believe that every woman should independently choose priorities in life. The task of the state is to ensure this choice exists.
What kinds of qualities are most important to have as a business woman?
Today, a revolution needs to happen in people’s heads, especially in women’s heads. Mentally, women are still remaining mothers, wives, and keepers of the hearth, but the 21st century has different tasks in store for them. Because women are capable of self-fulfillment not only as mothers, but also as professionals.
From the economic standpoint, society only stands to gain from the inclusion of women in all sectors of the labor market. The Soviet leadership knew this, and although there wasn’t full gender equality, they recognized the value of women’s contribution to the economy and made efforts to advance it. That was 100 years ago, so how come we’re still questioning women’s potential today?
Today, most problems related to the glass ceiling for women in various spheres exist precisely because of the misconceptions and attitudes entrenched in the consciousness of our society.
In business, it’s difficult for women to become leaders. Russia could borrow some positive practices in the sphere of entrepreneurship from other countries. For example, it’s worth paying attention to increasing the levels of financial literacy for women entrepreneurs in Russia, to disseminate information about existing tools and mechanisms for business development, about support measures from the state and private entities. It’s also important to fight discrimination in the workplace.
Last fall, you represented Russia during a We-Fi (Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative) meeting in New York. What were your impressions?
The topic was actually women’s entrepreneurship. We discussed what unites women entrepreneurs from different countries and what kinds of problems they encounter when starting their own business. Women who are civil servants, general directors of companies, entrepreneurs, public figures and heads of international organizations from Denmark, the United States, India, South Korea and other countries attended the meeting.
I talked about our experience, because in Russia female entrepreneurship is developing much faster than male entrepreneurship. For example, we talked about about investment projects in the field of pre-school and additional education, culture, tourism and other areas in which women are traditionally strong.
Another key topic was mentorship, and I talked about my own experience. This is the project “Mom is an entrepreneur,” which we are implementing together with OPORA Rossii in the Moscow region. As part of the project, women are trained in the basics of doing business. Each of them receives support from the municipality and a business mentor in their field. Local authorities are directly interested in the developing women’s entrepreneurship, because all taxes go to the budget of the municipality.
It should be noted that in most countries the stereotypical understanding of gender inequality is gradually changing to the concept of equal opportunities for all. A woman can now not only engage in keeping the home, but also successfully build a career, including in business. The idea of this combination of responsibilities has almost no opponents left.
Ivanka Trump, advisor to the President of United States and a successful business woman herself, was the initiator behind the meeting and the establishment of We-Fi. To me, she seemed to be a nice and welcoming summit host who easily took initiative. I was always convinced women are better negotiators than men, and this summit reaffirmed my belief. In a difficult political climate, women come together and work toward common goals. We are the creators of new channels for international cooperation.
What kinds of problems do women most often run into when starting their own business?
Stereotypes are again women’s biggest enemies here. For example, it is much harder for women to secure a business loan from a bank than for men.
In my experience, there are challenges at every stage: from opening a business account and working with a bank to formalizing labor relations with employees and reporting. It is here, at the initial stage of business development, that quality mentoring plays an important role. Often, this is the only way to save a project and transfer key business skills to a novice entrepreneur.
If we talk about enterprises that have already been established, then one of the main problems of social business, in my opinion, is sales and access to the market. Alas, it is not so easy for SMEs to present their products to a wide audience.
Is special support from the state necessary for women who plan to open their own business?
Absolutely. And Russia has experience with providing state support for small business and business in the social sphere, there are organizations and foundations that support women’s business initiatives. Sometimes, in order to give impetus to the independent development of entrepreneurial projects, financial assistance to women becomes absolutely necessary. Equally important is the assistance in marketing the products of social entrepreneurs. This enables people to create sustainable business models.
Some time ago you reported that you were working on a draft law on gender equality. What are its main innovations?
The draft law on gender equality was submitted to the State Duma in 2003, by the speaker Vyacheslav Volodin (back then, he was an ordinary deputy). It was adopted in the first reading and forgotten. My colleagues and I came to the conclusion that now is the time to revive it. This is a bill on equal rights, opportunities, and in some cases equal results for women, primarily in the sphere of labor relations. The bill protects women from discrimination in the area where they remain vulnerable – at work. Every fifth woman in a leadership position has faced discrimination, most often on the basis of gender and age. The general prohibition of discrimination in the Labor Code is not enough to protect women.
It’s important to resolve a whole set of problems, including one that is called the “glass ceiling” – when women constitute the majority of highly qualified specialists, but a minority of managers. In addition, in Russia there is still such a historical atavism, as the “List of professions prohibited for women,” which, despite significant scientific and technological progress, has remained unchanged since 1978.
Now, a working group has been set up at the State Duma Committee on Family, Women and Children, where we discuss specific mechanisms for improving legislation related to women’s rights. This is a permanent platform for dialogue with public organizations and activists who seek to improve the status of women in Russia. I hope that these joint efforts will help us get things off the ground.
Aside from legislation, what other measures need to be taken to resolve the problem of discrimination?
It’s important to distinguish women’s entrepreneurship as a separate segment with a set share of funds that are used to develop it, to boost the quality of education programs through attracting professional coaches, and to create conditions for educating women on entrepreneurship with free legal and financial support at the preliminary stages.
Moreover, it’s important to develop a media strategy for small and medium-sized business. People need to see and hear stories about women who are successfully implementing entrepreneurial projects. We’re already discussing creating a TV program like this with my colleagues at the State Duma. I hope that it will appear on federal channels soon, and women all over the country will have the opportunity to be inspired by successful women entrepreneurs, as well as learn more about the different measures of support available to women in business.