When Liliya walked into a room, she instantly commanded it, with her high heels, pencil skirt and wrinkle-free blouse, the perfectly arranged bun on the top of her head. Whether speaking in English or Russian, she had a near-tangible air of confidence. No hesitation. No faltering. Liliya was the Deputy Dean of the Faculty for International Students at Lobachevsky University in Nizhny Novgorod. Make no mistake, she instantly left an impression, albeit a slightly scary one. When I arrived at the university in Nizhni Novgorod for my Fulbright, she was the first person I met. There I found myself, sitting across from a real, live Russian woman in power. And she was not what I expected.
I have always been a bit conflicted about gender in Russia; it makes sense in some aspects, and, in others, not at all. I would say that my priorities and wishes often differ from that of the stereotypical “Russian” woman.
When I was six or seven, my dad sat me down on my twin bed and handed me what looked like a shiny quarter. As he placed it in my hand he said, “On this dollar is Susan B. Anthony. Thanks to her, women have the right to vote. You keep this dollar as a reminder that you shouldn’t let anyone, ever, tell you can’t do something just because you’re a woman.”
I was in the second grade, and that year my class coincidentally was given an assignment to write a report on a famous historical figure. I instantly knew who I would choose: Susan B. Anthony. We had a month to finish the report, but I asked my father to take me to the library that evening where I checked out a handful of books on Susan B. Anthony and the Women’s Rights Movement in the 1920s. I was so eager to read her story that I finished the book—and the report—that same night. I had so much to say that the end result was about five to seven pages all stapled together rather than the obligatory one page we had to write, and I even drew a picture of Susan B. Anthony illegally casting her ballot at the 1872 US Presidential election. It was at that point, at the age of 7, that I became a self-proclaimed feminist, long before the term made headlines on a regular basis and the #MeToo movement swept Hollywood and the internet. Of course, my version of feminism has largely adhered to the words spoken to me by my father years early, that is, women should be able to do or become whatever they want irrespective of gender; they should be unequivocally equal in the eyes of the law and be ordained with the same rights.
Growing up I flocked to strong women. A giant poster of Mia Hamm hung on my bedroom door, that one Susan B. Anthony dollar turned into a collection, Elizabeth I was my ideal ruler, and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, was my fictional hero. In fact, for a time, I refused to watch any film or tv series that lacked a female lead, including Star Wars (Princess Leia wasn’t enough). I have always carried my feminists roots with me. I have always been determined to be tough, strong, and independent.
When I landed in Russia for the first time, I didn’t really know what to expect. In the Western world, you hear horror stories about outdated patriarchal views, and yes, there are women who will insist on applying a layer of makeup just to go buy groceries, on a continuous quest to find, for lack of a better term, a “sugar daddy”. At the same time, you meet women like Liliya.
Russian women are without question tough. All you need to do is watch the numerous older women braving the harsh winter chill to purchase groceries. With steps ever so slight, they cross the ice and climb up stairs, their heavy duffel bags rolling behind them, until they can finally rest on the metro as they make their way home. Older women will gladly tell you the tales of when they were younger and left behind all comforts to travel to Siberia to accompany their husbands who had been called on to serve in the army. At the same time, Russian views on gender are markedly different from those in the West. In general, the term “feminism” carries a negative connotation. It invokes images of ugly, loud, and angry women threatening the very idea of femininity and destroying the treasured concepts of love and flirting. Women should wear make-up and high heels and dresses, while men should always pay for their dinner. Of course, that is a severe oversimplification of gender in Russia, but, in general, the country readily embraces gender roles. In fact, one of my Russian professors once told me that a woman who doesn’t have children is a traitor to her country—that’s her greatest responsibility. But, much to my surprise, working women in Russia are everywhere.
Before I met Liliya, I met my host mom the fall of my junior year. Her name was Svetlana, and she was in her late 70s. Her former husband had been a diplomat for the Russian government, stationed in Yemen. That meant that even when she was married, she was mostly a single parent. Even in her late 70s, she seemed tireless. She still trekked to the children’s hospital where she worked as a doctor 3-4 days a week, often not coming home until 8-9 pm at night. The more time I spent in Russia, the more I realized Svetlana was the rule rather than the exception.
A study in 2017 found that 77% of Russian women are members of the workforce—significantly higher than the European average (51-53%) and the percentage in America (57%). Such high levels of female participation in the workforce can be traced back to the Soviet Union, when women were seen as an important, untapped source of labor. Today, their high mobilization is also the result of economic pressures and low salaries, which force women to take jobs outside the home. While there is a significant portion of women who work in low-paying, low-skilled jobs, Russia also has the largest number of women in top management roles in the world. In 2016, a report by the firm Grant Thornton found that women in Russia occupy 45% of senior management positions, while the global average is just 25%. In the US, only 23% of women occupy senior leadership positions. Thorton’s report attributed this percentage, in part, to the strong legacy of the communist principles of equality.
Oddly enough, where I currently work, RT, is a microcosm of women business leaders. RT is a global TV news network funded by the state budget, and the Editor-in-Chief who was handpicked to run it by a male president is a woman. Now, Margarita Simonyan is a divisive figure, both abroad and within the country, but her influence and prominence is hard to dispute. Forbes even ranked her as number 52 on their Power Women 2017 list. And Margarita is far from the only female head at the network. The CEO of RT’s global multimedia news agency Ruptly is female, as is the head of RT Spanish, the head of RT France, the head of RT Arabic, and the Deputy Editor-in-Chief/Head of Comms. In fact, within my department (Strategic Development/Marketing) there is just one male employee. That is certainly not a picture I ever envisioned when I first entered the workforce, neither in Russia nor in America.
While these are good statistics, the situation is not perfect. The pay gap between women and men in Russia is about 10 percent higher than most other developed countries, with Russian women earning roughly 27% less than men for comparable positions and responsibilities. In addition, a provision by the Russian government prohibits women from 456 occupations and 38 branches of industry, viewing them as harmful to women’s health. To be fair, the government views this as a positive effort meant to protect women, but the practice has raised concern both by some in Russia and abroad. In general, certain job sectors are deemed more for “women” and others for “men”. That’s perhaps why certain industries, such as banking, still maintain a deficit of female chief executives. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017, which measures the gender equality in a country based on a combination of factors related to educational attainment, economic participation and opportunity, health and survival, and political empowerment, ranked Russia 71 out of 144. The country ranks higher than the global average in terms of gender equality but lags far behind many European, Asian, and African countries.
With regards to politics, women represent just 15% of the Russian parliament, while they compromise 53% of the entire population. Since 1991, there have only been three female ministers at any one time, and at some points, none. However, some Russians would point to this as evidence that quotas do not exist— a positive that promotes a merit-based system.
Maria Zakharova, perhaps the most well-known female face of Russian politics, is a rather interesting character study. As the country’s first-ever female press secretary for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and, currently, the only female in the entire department, Zakharova has arguably revolutionized the way the Ministry communicates with the outside world. Her methods and tactics are controversial, true, but she is undisputedly intelligent and a force any person, man or woman, would be hard-pressed to stifle. While some might attempt to hold her up as an example of exactly the kind of feminist women need in Russian politics, she would reject any such association. In a recent profile with Meduza, she retold a story of when, in 2004, while living in New York, she visited the National Gallery. At one point, as she was passing through the halls, her high heels making that unmistakable clink on the gallery floor, an older man came up to her to say how grateful he was to see her wearing those beautiful shoes. He lamented how now, all the women he sees tread through the gallery wear “terrible, shapeless shoes”. In that moment, Zakharova felt that America was living in an “upside down” world. As a rule, Zakharova pays great attention to her outward appearance; she always wears high heels and makes an effort to stay thin. I am fairly certain that pantsuits will not be catching on at any point in the near future. Zakharova strongly believes that women should be feminine and men should be gentlemen. With regards to women in leadership positions, she dismisses the idea of quotas. From her point of view, not having quotas allows you to be certain that when a woman earns a high position, she has earned it based on her skills and qualifications. And, furthermore, she is certain that, based on their own merits, more and more women will inevitably reach higher positions within the government.
I would venture that Zakharova represents, in a nutshell, the way a lot of Russian women think about gender and working women. Women and men have fundamentally separate natures, but that doesn’t make one inferior to the other. I don’t necessarily view this way of thinking as “bad” or “wrong”. It’s just different. However, after three years in this country, I am sure of one thing: I am constantly in awe of the Russian women I come to meet. Their interests are varied, their goals diverse, and their thirst for knowledge nearly unquenchable. There’s my boyfriend’s grandma who, as a young women, was one of the only doctors in her region of Kamchatka. Given the mountainous landscape, she often had to travel to her patients via helicopter. Now, in her mid 70s, she is still lively and active, consuming prodigious amounts of literature. There is Irina, who, driven by her belief in the importance of sharing culture through language, founded her own language center in Siberia. Thanks to her, in an area where there are few, if any, foreigners, children can learn French, Italian, Spanish, and English, whether they are 5 or 55, and have the opportunity to learn from native speakers from around the globe via Skype. There’s my friend Veronika, who grew up the daughter of geologists in Siberia. She later moved to Moscow, where she has worked for numerous big-name companies, including Google and mail.ru, and is, by far, one of the most independent women I know. There’s Sasha, whose maturity manifests itself as a near-visible aura surrounding her. She never complains and never shows bitterness. Within just a couple of years, she travelled to Moscow from the regions (not easy to do), began a career, earned her Master’s while working, survived a divorce, and bought an apartment. And she’s younger than I am. There’s Maria, an expert in Russian linguistics, who has taught American diplomats in St. Petersburg, Critical Language Scholarship students studying abroad, and hundreds of other foreign students. But by far, her most impressive trait is her ability to learn about new cultures, to embrace them without prejudice or without ever passing judgement. Then there’s Masha, my fellow midget, who speaks five languages and whose brain is like a perpetually regenerating sponge. She never tires of trying new things, or learning, whether it’s string theory, programming, or the difference between the past and past perfect tense in English. She’s also an amazing friend, who never asks for anything in return.
This is just a small selection of the many Russian women who inspire me. Their gender might not serve as a source of collective identity, but it also in no way restrains or defines them. All of these women go where they want when they want, and they go after what they desire without holding back— which is exactly what my father taught me to do all those years ago. Some things simply transcend something as arbitrary as national borders.