For Moscow's businesswomen, a powerful new role
On International Women's Day, Russian women celebrate strides in business, but say inequalities remain.
MOSCOW — Perhaps no other Russian businesswoman has been more upwardly mobile than Vogue magazine editor Alyona Doletskaya.
A decade ago her career path was unthinkable - her job didn't even exist. Ms. Doletskaya's trek to the top of Russia's burgeoning fashion world started in the musty corridors of Soviet academia and landed her in plush penthouse offices overlooking the Kremlin.
Her transformation from professor of linguistics to glitterati testifies to the dizzying new opportunities for women in Russia, which is seeing an unprecedented wave of newly successful female entrepreneurs and professionals. It's evident at Moscow's expensive sushi bars where women in designer suits cluster for lunch. It can be seen in the first-class cabins on international flights, in fitness clubs, and even in the offices' of cosmetic surgeons.
As Russia marks International Women's Day Tuesday, the official holiday that's a bit like Valentine's Day and Mother's Day rolled into one, some women say there is finally something to celebrate.
"Things are changing drastically," says Ms. Doletskaya, editor in chief of the Rus- sian edition of Vogue. "Younger women these days do not hang back or defer to men. They are investing themselves in careers and some are even arriving at the upper heights of management."
In the turbulent 1990s, many women adapted to market rules faster than men. Hundreds of thousands of them became "shuttle traders," bringing consumer goods in bulk from abroad to sell in local markets. Though shuttle trading has been superseded by organized commerce in recent years, women remain strong in the retail sector.
"Women understood they had to survive," says one expert. "While men lay about on the sofa, or took to drinking, women mobilized to support their families."
More than 40 percent of small businesses in Russia today are run by women, says Tatiana Chertoritskaya, chair of the Women's Social-Democratic Congress, a coalition of mainly professional women that lobbies for equal rights. "The numbers of women in management positions in business are growing, while numbers of men are stagnating," she says. "But our research shows women's salaries remain lower; on average women earn 63 percent of what men earn."
While women are making strides in business, politics is another story.
The former Soviet system reserved a third of seats in its parliament for women, but the quotas were abolished when Communism collapsed, and female representation in the State Duma has fallen steadily, to around 7 percent today.
"There are no women in government," says Ms. Chertoritskaya. "We have a few women celebrities, who dominate TV talks shows, but there is still no real women's movement in Russia. That must grow from below, not be imposed from above."
Nor does the gender gap appear to be closing on the domestic front, according to many Russian women. Men have traditionally expected women to shoulder the burdens of housework and child rearing, while giving them little respect for professional accomplishments. "There's a lot of complacency about Russian men; they are changing much more slowly than women," says Doletskaya.
Nonna Gazayeva, a public relations consultant in her 30s, complains that Russian men have absorbed James Bond-esque ideas about male-female relations from Western culture, while failing to adapt to the changing needs of women.
"Russia is still a man's world, and it's really hard to prove that a woman deserves a place," she says. "Men think it's cool to behave irresponsibly toward women in personal relationships, but they still won't accept that she has ambitions in the workplace."
Women's Day, an important holiday on the Soviet calendar, has long since been shorn of its feminist origins and turned into an officially sanctioned occasion for Russian men to atone for 364 days of neglect by showering women with flowers, compliments, and copious vodka toasts.
Despite progress in some areas, many women say they feel ambivalent, at best, as March 8 rolls around.
"This holiday always left a bad taste in my mouth," says Irina Zvigelskaya, a professor at the official Institute of Foreign Affairs. "It seems to be the only day of the year for men to prove they care. But I always thought, if they were real men they'd do it all year round."
Experts say the prosperity that has transformed the lives of some women, mainly in Moscow, still eludes the vast majority. "For most women economic conditions have deteriorated," says Tatiana Troynova, director of the Women's Information Network, a grass-roots group. "Of course women are more emancipated now, they have greater opportunities in business and commerce. But even here they need to be 10 times more capable than men to succeed. It's not equality."
A recent survey of living standards by the independent ROMIR monitoring agency suggested that of the poorest 15 percent of Russians, 68 percent are women. Many of the poor are well-educated women who find their skills unrewarded in the new economic order.
"The values of society are turned upside down," says Yevgenia Vanina, a senior expert on Indian history at the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, who speaks fluent Hindi and English, but earns just 4,000 rubles ($130) per month. "Some women today can get wealthy doing PR, modeling, or advertising, but a doctor, professor, or factory worker can't even make a living. Where is all this leading?"