Rise of the Volga boatwomen? Russia ending gender bar on many jobs

Why We Wrote This

Russia has long legally forbidden women from taking certain jobs in an effort to “protect” them. That is now changing, but lowering the legal hurdles to equality is just a first step in effecting cultural change, experts say.

Michael Dalder/Reuters/File
Captaining river boats, like this one on the Volga River in Samara, is one of the jobs long legally barred to Russian women that will be opened up next year.

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Currently in Russia there is a list of 456 professions, ranging from miner to diver to train driver, that are illegal for women to perform. But starting in 2021 that list will be cut to just 100 jobs, as Russia takes a step toward gender equality in the law – even if gender discrimination remains an ongoing problem in the workplace.

The list, a Soviet holdover, is meant to protect women from jobs considered too dangerous for them. The post-Soviet era has seen some working improvements for women, but the loss of Soviet-era privileges such as guaranteed employment and free day care have largely not been offset with new opportunities. And while the list that kept them from taking on some of the most skilled and highest-paying occupations is about to be shortened, the underlying law – and biases – are still in place.

“This is progress, but it’s nothing like a solution,” says Lyudmila Ayvar, a Moscow human rights lawyer. “We will still face more subtle forms of discrimination. Employers will continue to choose men, because they are less likely to rush home to their families, or take time off for maternity reasons, and it will be much harder to prove that it’s because of gender discrimination.”

Svetlana Medvedeva spent years studying for her chosen profession, Volga River boat captain, before she hit a roadblock in the form of a law she had never heard of.

Ms. Medvedeva had the necessary degree, training, and years of experience working aboard the passenger ships that ply the vast Volga River, which flows by her home town of Samara. But in 2012 she was denied advancement because commanding a riverboat was one of 456 professions in Russia legally barred to women for being considered too hazardous or arduous for them to perform. She ended up suing over the law.

“I was blocked from doing what I wanted not because I was unqualified, but just because I was a woman,” says Ms. Medvedeva. She spent five years fighting in the courts, received support from the United Nations, and eventually won her landmark court victory in 2017. “My case was one of the first gender discrimination suits, and the court in Samara recognized it.”

That may have had some impact in Moscow. After a lengthy bureaucratic process, Russia’s Ministry of Labor announced in July that the list of banned occupations for women would be reduced to just under 100 in 2021 when, among many other things, women will legally be allowed to be river boat captains.

But it’s not much help for Ms. Medvedeva, whose qualifications were deemed to be outdated after her long legal battle, and who now works in a maintenance station for oil tankers in Samara. And experts warn that occupational equality still has a long way to go, both in terms of jobs still barred to women and in subtler gender discrimination outside legal obstacles.

“I think these changes have been made because women have finally begun to raise their voices and complain,” she says. “After I launched my gender discrimination case, there were others by women who wanted to drive trains and long-distance trucks. It’s a disgrace how many women have been blocked from realizing their dreams because of this law.

“I know a lot of cases when women were fired because of their gender. Women will still be prevented from being divers, miners, and steelworkers. There are women who work in the firefighting service but, no matter what they may wish, remained confined to office work. So it’s not over.”

Legal logic

The Soviet-era laws, which were renewed and extended at the beginning of the Putin era, reflect a very different approach to “protecting” women compared with the principles that have guided the struggle for women’s equality in the West. They make it illegal for a woman to hold any job that requires her to lift more than 20 pounds twice an hour. The jobs legally barred to women include miner; diver; worker in chemical or metallurgical factory; and driver of trains, metro, or long-distance trucks.

The USSR actually made its list of banned female occupations a centerpiece of propaganda by highlighting the state’s concern for women’s “reproductive health” and general well-being. In reality, Soviet women bore the brunt of menial work, long hours, and low pay, in addition to shouldering much of the burden in their home lives.

The post-Soviet era has seen some improvements, with many educated women moving up in the professional and business worlds. But for most, the loss of Soviet-era privileges such as guaranteed employment and free day care have not been offset with new opportunities. Even though the list that kept them from taking on some of the most skilled and highest-paying occupations is about to be dramatically shortened, the underlying law that blocks them on principle is still in place.

“This is a step in the right direction, and the changes do reflect a global tendency which we in Russia are following,” says Galina Mikhalyova, who speaks on gender issues for the liberal Yabloko party. “These lists were always filled with contradictions anyway. Why is it that a woman could drive a tram, but not a metro train? Why could women who work on railway construction regularly lift [railroad ties] that weigh almost 50 pounds, but not do other jobs that require lifting? Occupations permitted to women generally coincide with lower paid and lower status jobs, while the better ones were always reserved for men.”

Russian women’s rights activists say the basic law should reflect values like those promoted by the U.N., which would ensure no gender discrimination for any job, but require employers to make all workplaces equally accessible and safe for everyone.

“If some job is inherently unsafe, why do we let men do it?” says Lyudmila Ayvar, a Moscow human rights lawyer. “This is progress, but it’s nothing like a solution. Just because they have shortened that list doesn’t mean there will be a crush of women rushing to take those jobs. We will still face more subtle forms of discrimination. Employers will continue to choose men, because they are [perceived to be] less likely to rush home to their families, or take time off for maternity reasons, and it will be much harder to prove that it’s because of gender discrimination.”

‘This work is not for women’

Some women have found a niche, or a way around the rules. Olga Silantyeva drives an emergency vehicle for a first-responder team in the Moscow region. She says that she has earned the respect of the men she works with and enjoys her job. But there have been frustrations. As a qualified automotive engineer, she had previously applied for jobs as a truck driver and been turned down. On one occasion she’d been told that the position was filled, but later discovered that it was still open.

“I am a fan of the road, and I love driving, especially northern routes,” she says. “My present job is not on the banned list, but when I first applied for it I was told, ‘This work is not for women.’ I was persistent, and did get the job. It’s exciting work. We do emergency and rescue missions all over the region. But, it’s annoying that I am still not allowed to engage in firefighting. My boss would actually get punished if I was injured in a fire, therefore I am not allowed to go to anyplace where fighting a fire is a factor.”

Yuliana Kott has not been so lucky. Her dream was to work on Arctic icebreakers, and she graduated college as a qualified maritime navigator. And she got a job as 4th mate on the Akademik Fedorov, one of the most famous Russian icebreakers, but lost the job over questions about her legal right to perform it. Her gender discrimination suit is still pending, and meanwhile she is unemployed.

“Even if the ban is lifted, it will still be hard to get in,” she says. “The main obstacle is men. They just don’t like a woman intruding into what they regard as their space.”

Things are changing gradually, says Alexander Shershukov, deputy chairman of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia.

“Reducing the list of banned occupations is a good beginning,” he says. “But even in jobs where women work alongside men, they tend to make from 20% to 30% less. There are many, many problems, and this issue of prohibited jobs is only one of them. What we would like to see is a situation where all jobs are available to any qualified applicant, and offer equal conditions and equal pay for those who perform them. We are not there yet.”

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