International Women’s Day 2022: Spotlight on women in Russia

In the second part of our six part International Women’s Day blog series, we speak to Polina, a LIME based in Moscow, to find out more about social, economic and political conditions for women in Russia. This is what she told us.


Cultural and political background

Russian women gained many rights ahead of their Western counterparts. For example, the right to vote was granted to all Russian men and women in 1917 in the run-up to the October Revolution. After taking power, the Bolsheviks granted women many freedoms unknown elsewhere, such as the right to abortion. The Soviet Constitution of 1936 declared men and women to be equal and introduced paid maternity leave and free childcare in the workplace.

Partly because of this legacy, feminism has had a loaded history in Russia. Until relatively recently, for some Russian women, it has seemed less relevant – because the Western feminist movement was campaigning for rights we already had. For others, feminism was sometimes viewed with suspicion – it was seen as an attack on femininity and the prevailing cultural view which encourages women to see motherhood as their main priority.

Today, the feminist movement in Russia is growing. Hundreds of women attend marches and protests, and social media has made information more accessible to the public and helped change the perception of feminism from a potentially negative Western construct to something helpful for Russian society. Remember though: Russia is a multi-cultural society, and the experiences and perceptions of women vary across ethnic, religious and social lines.


The pay gap between men and women

In 2021, the pay gap between men and women was about 29%. However, the gap varies by region and job type – for example, Moscow has one of the lowest (at 12%) whereas St Petersburg is 23%.

But it’s not just about the pay gap – it’s also about the income gap (they are not the same thing). The income gap between men and women in Russia is 45% – because women have reduced access to political and corporate power and tend to own fewer assets. Women also do a significant amount of unpaid work. They have lower pensions – which is inevitable since lower wages eventually equate to lower pensions. This is particularly acute when you consider that Russia has twice as many elderly women as elderly men – 28.6 million versus 14.3 million. This is partly because women live longer than men and partly because Russia has gender asymmetry in favour of women – as of 2021, women made up 53.6% of the population, whereas men were 46.4%.

As a result, more women are in poverty than men. Higher poverty rates affect not only women but also their offspring – for example, poor women can’t afford higher education for their children, which affects the child’s future economic mobility.


Russian women in the workplace

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2021 by The World Economic Forum:

  • Women in Russia are generally well integrated into the job market: 68.9 % are in the labour force and hold more skilled roles than men.
  • Even though women in Russia are more educated (meaning they hold a university degree), and they prevail among top-level specialists (about 70%), C-suite positions remain dominated by men.
  • There are relatively few firms with women as top managers (24.3 %) and, despite recent progress, it is not very common for women to be in top managerial roles or on boards of listed companies (10.6 %).
  • When it comes to political empowerment, only 15.8% of Russian parliamentarians and 9.7% of ministers are women.


Female entrepreneurs in Russia

According to a report by Zerno Ventures, the proportion of Russian start-up businesses where at least one founder is a woman is 17%. This is slightly lower than the global average of 20% but higher than the European average of 14%. [Statista has some interesting data here about the proportion of female business founders worldwide.]

There are famous and successful female entrepreneurs in Russia, including:

Tatiana Bakalchuk – the first self-made female billionaire in Russia, Tatiana is the founder and CEO of Wildberries, Russa’s largest online retailer now present in 14 countries. Before Wildberries, Tatiana was an English teacher.

Miroslava Duma – Miroslava has been described as “a force of the fashion industry” by the Financial Times and “the most connected digital entrepreneur in fashion” by Vogue. One project she is famous for is The Pangaia – which is a materials science company on a mission to save the environment, creating products from innovative tech and bio-engineered materials.

Olga Zinovieva – Olga is the founder and CEO of food tech start-up Elementaree. The company provides ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat meal kits on a subscription basis (similar to Hello Fresh).


Equality legislation in Russia

Russia’s constitution as well as the Labour Code of the Russian Federation prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex (or family or social status) but in practice, women still face inequalities.

Russia has a list of industries, jobs and positions which women are prohibited from holding, because they are considered dangerous. These include chemical production, underground and mining operations, oil and gas extraction, metalworking, radio engineering and electronic production, shipbuilding and others. The list dates from Soviet times and was designed to protect women from jobs considered harmful for their reproductive health. At its peak, there were 456 prohibited jobs on the list, but more recently, Putin’s government reduced this to 100. Feminists believe the list perpetuates the stereotypical role of women as mothers and fails to consider their lives beyond child-rearing.


Key issues holding women back in Russia

One of the main issues holding women back is a legacy of patriarchal attitudes. A 2020 study by the NAFI Research Centre found that:

  • 71% of Russians believe that a woman fulfils her highest potential when she becomes a good wife and mother.
  • A majority of women (89%) believe that a man should provide for the family whilst only 45% of women agree with the statement that women should financially sustain themselves.
  • Though most married Russians (55%) state that the most responsible decisions are made by both partners, in 29% of families the most important decisions are made by a man alone whereas in only 15% of families are the women the responsible decision-makers.
  • Nearly a third (32%) of Russians believe that a woman must decide between a professional career and having a family, and this figure is higher amongst parents.


A survey by the Lavada Centre in 2019 drew similar conclusions:

  • Every Russian man polled, regardless of age group, believed that the most desirable quality in a woman was being a good homemaker.
  • Russian women tended to agree: whilst younger women considered attractiveness to be the most desirable quality, by age 30, women believed it was more important to be a good homemaker for a man.
  • When asked the equivalent question about desirable qualities in a man, both men and women ranked intelligence as the most important trait for a man. Men, however, ranked intelligence in a woman as sixth on their list of 15 traits.


The key issues which hold Russian women back are not so different from elsewhere in the world – pay discrimination, women being the main providers of unpaid caring responsibilities, the undervaluing of women’s work, occupational segregation and under-representation in top business and political roles.


Domestic abuse in Russia

According to a survey published by Ipsos, 21% of Russian men and women named domestic abuse as the most important issue for the country’s female population. According to Human Rights Watch, about 12,000 women die each year in Russia at the hands of their abusers, and the real figure is believed to be higher.

Lockdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic trapped many women at home with their abusers. Initially, Russia denied a spike in domestic violence, despite national domestic violence organisations reporting their inability to keep up with an increased volume in calls from victims. Up until May 2020, women were fined for breaking quarantine if they attempted to escape their abusers – although the government then conceded that domestic violence was a valid reason to break lockdown.

A Human Rights Watch report titled Domestic Violence in Russia noted significant gaps in Russia’s laws, a lack of protection orders and inadequate police and judicial responses to women facing serious physical violence. It also found that domestic violence in Russia tends to be seen as a private matter. Often, police and service providers advise women to avoid ‘provoking’ their abusers.

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This article is based on insights and commentary supplied to us by Polina, one of Oban’s LIMEs based in Moscow. Oban’s LIME network comprises over 450 Local In-Market Experts based in over 80 countries around the world. Our LIMEs provide authentic, on-the-ground cultural, linguistic and digital insights that help our clients succeed in their target markets. To find out how your business could benefit from Oban’s LIME network, please get in touch.

Oban International is the digital marketing agency specialising in international expansion. Our LIME (Local In-Market Expert) Network provides up to date cultural input and insights from over 80 markets around the world, helping clients realise the best marketing opportunities and avoid the costliest mistakes.

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