MOSCOW — In the final analysis, being desperate and frustrated was the best thing that could have happened to her, Elena Tonchu says.
Like many Russian women, she was trapped in a low-wage job and her marriage was collapsing.
That was in the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union and communism were crumbling. Ms. Tonchu saw an opportunity that would have been unthinkable before - to form her own business.
"I realized that all the men working above me were consulting me on how to do their paperwork. I realized I could do it better than them," she says. "I also [wanted] a better life for my children. Financial independence seemed the only way to do that."
Today, Tonchu heads a small conglomerate and lectures at a university. She has written a how-to book for Russian women on starting their own enterprises. Tonchu's businesses are in the northern Caucasian town of Krymsk, and include a drugstore and an auditing firm, among others.
Hers is one of a small but growing number of success stories at a time when things appear bleak for Russian female workers.
A bright spot for women
"The social position of women has worsened with the Soviet Union's collapse. But the one area of progress is in the numbers of women heading their own firms," says Flora Abdrakmanova, international projects coordinator of the Women's Union of Russia. The Moscow-based lobbying group is an outgrowth of the former Communist women's organization, but has severed ties to the party.
Russian women are among the world's best-educated and have been active in the labor force since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. High numbers are trained as engineers, scientists, doctors, and writers. But despite an official rhetoric of equality over the years, very few have reached the top echelons of political or economic power. Many women complain of being relegated to lower-paying jobs with little opportunity for advancement.
Russia's women also are among the population's most financially strapped. They account for 70 percent of the unemployed, partly due to being fired in disproportionate numbers when nearly 120,000 firms were transferred to private hands from 1991 to 1994, as Russia moved toward a market economy. In a country where two-thirds of all marriages end in divorce, nearly all single-parent households are headed by women. And with a life expectancy of 73 years versus 58 years for men, most old age pensioners living on the poverty line are female.
In the political sphere, women have lost ground since the Soviet era, when they received a one-third quota in parliament. Now, women make up 7.2 percent of the 450-seat lower house, or Duma. The upper house has one female member, and there are two women ministers in President Boris Yeltsin's government.
"In the power sphere, there is great discrimination against women. It's very difficult to imagine a women elected as our president or prime minister," says sociologist Yelena Vigdorchik of the Expert Institute Foundation, a Moscow-based independent research group.
Despite all the problems, a new breed of young female executive is benefiting from the introduction of capitalism in Russia as well as contributing to its spread by breaking through the thick glass ceiling.
"If women understand the necessity to change, they will be able to do it themselves, even if men create obstacles," says Nina Krivelskaya, deputy chairwoman of the Duma Committee on Women, the Family, and Youth.
The trend is a young one. Statistics circulated at a recent seminar on women entrepreneurs at the Financial Academy in Moscow indicated that in Russia, one-quarter of women bosses are under 35. Nearly three-quarters of their companies are less than five years old.
Many women entrepreneurs said they faced great difficulties to get where they are, including problems raising capital and negative stereotyping by men.
Creating a new corporate culture
Women are creating a new corporate culture, according to Nina Pokorskaya, president of the prominent Russian fashion house Salyut. Ms. Pokorskaya says she has no trouble winning respect from male subordinates.
"Perhaps it's because I run my business like a family," she says.
Tonchu sees her mission in life to help create a Russia where men and women face no obstacles in realizing their potential. She's begun at home, teaching her teenage son and daughter that they must succeed - equally.
"I've told them that I'd like one to become an economist and one a lawyer," she says. "It's up to them to choose who does what."