• A
  • A
  • A
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
Regular version of the site

Why Women Executives Are Rare

Qualifications and education being equal, it's rare for women in Russia to make it to the top of the corporate ladder compared to men. The reasons for this may vary from a lack of state support to gender role stereotypes which view women as primarily mothers and homemakers, according to the HSE researchers.


Dmitry Kurakin, Director, Centre for Cultural Sociology and Anthropology of Education, HSE Institute of Education.
Yulia Kosyakova, Postdoctoral Researcher, Institute for Employment Research, Nuremberg, Germany.

Since the USSR’s breakup, gender inequality in employment has increased in Russia, contrary to arguments that gender differences in terms of access to senior roles should decrease in a free market for women whose professional competences and education are not inferior to men’s. According to such theories, it should be easier for women to advance their careers in a free market. Yet the opposite has turned out to be the case in post-Soviet Russia.

According to the authors, a multitude of factors may have been at play, including an abrupt change in public institutions. With fewer jobs available in the shrinking post-Soviet public sector, private employers preferred workers without parental responsibilities and thus did not favour women.

Women's career choices also played a role. A lack of support from the state, including limited childcare options, forced many women to choose jobs which might not compete with family life, but did not offer bright career prospects either.

In addition to this, cultural stereotypes limiting the woman's role to that of wife and mother, rather than a competent, well-educated professional, grew stronger in post-Soviet society, and this 'new yet old' value system made it even harder for a woman to have a successful career outside of home.

Kurakin and Kosyakova published their findings in Do Institutions Matter?  Occupational Gender Segregation at Labour Market Entry in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia, a chapter in the book Gender, Education and Employment: An International Comparison of School-to-Work Transitions (Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015).

'Masculine' Public Policy

Women in Russia hold 40% to 45% of senior management positions, according to a number of studies (see Not a Weaker SexRussia Tops Global Ranking for Women in Senior RolesGrant Thornton: Russia World's Leader for Women Executives). Nevertheless, there is clearly a gender gap in senior positions. Career advancement is generally harder for women in Russia.

The researchers found that between 1965 and 1979, women and men employed in the same sector and having the same level of education had equal chances of being promoted to senior executive positions. However, starting in 1980-1990, a bias against women emerged and continued to grow after the USSR collapsed. Women with the same professional qualifications as men faced stronger barriers to accessing high-status positions.

The authors explain it by way of a number of interconnected factors:

  • The transition to a free market economy led to a reduction in the public sector, which used to employ many women, particularly in the social and cultural spheres. The loss of employment in the public sector was partially offset by new jobs opening up in commercial services. However, female job applicants had to compete with men switching in large numbers to the growing service sector after losing their jobs in the manufacturing field and other declining industries.
  • The new private sector employers weighed up the pros and cons and discriminated against women in terms of hiring, pay, etc., perceiving them as more risky and costly than men due to potential parental responsibilities.
  • Employment protection was weak. Standing up for their rights on the job was really hard for women at the time.
  • The government abruptly cut its support of working parents. Thus, many childcare facilities closed down between 1991 and 2005, leaving numerous mothers unable to work outside the home.
  • Statutory maternity leave was made longer. The state thereby implicitly encouraged women to focus on homemaking and raising children as their main occupation. This policy was in sharp contrast with the old Soviet system of universal employment when up to 90% of women of working age had jobs outside the home.

Some women, particularly the wives of wealthier men, welcomed the new policy and readily left the labour market, sometimes never to come back. Female employees who could otherwise have qualified for senior positions were at a disadvantage compared to their male peers: the new policy now forced many women to lower their career ambitions and choose jobs which could accommodate their family life. As a result, women's education and qualifications could no longer translate into promotions and higher pay.

Culture against Women

Russian society continues to believe in traditional gender roles, despite the decades of declared equality.

'Men are providers and women are homemakers' – this stereotype can be particularly strong in times of change, according to Kurakin and Kosyakova. The authors attribute it to the emergence of a new traditionalism: in societies faced by challenging times, advanced education and career strategies, economic habits and lifestyles are often losing ground, replaced by more powerful patriarchal cultural trends. 

Business for Men Only

New economic phenomena with a strong masculine bias contributed to this patriarchal shift. Emerging virtually from scratch in the 1990s, business in early post-Soviet Russia was marred by violence and brutality. Practices such as hostile takeovers, raiding, 'protection rackets' and others prevailed (see V. Volkov Force Entrepreneurship in Contemporary Russia) and could not but affect the entire labour market.

Another 'new yet old' socio-cultural factor, the revival of religion, has contributed to gender inequality in Russia. Cultural patterns associated with Christianity and Islam generally encourage a traditionalist view on the role of women.

Social Evolution Reversed

The authors explain this triumph of 'new yet old' cultural stereotypes by referring to Emile Durkheim's classical sociological theory (Durkheim, E. Division of Labour in Society). Durkheim postulated a link between the division of labour and the type of social solidarity that unifies society. He identified two types of social solidarity: mechanical, which is more traditional and based on strong stereotypes, including gender stereotypes, and a clear division of roles, and organic which leaves more room for individual initiative and assigns roles based on merit. According to Durkheim, as economies and institutions evolve, organic solidarity replaces mechanical solidarity.

Kurakin and Kosyakova argue, however, that in times of great change, linear social progress gets disrupted. Uncertainty can often cause social evolution to reverse its course, with organic solidarity giving way to updated forms of mechanical solidarity. According to the authors, institutions can make a difference, although sometimes only due to their decline. Culture, however, matters even more in times of change.

The authors studied gender inequality in the labour market in the Soviet (1965–1991) and post-Soviet (1991–2005) periods using retrospective data from the Russian Education and Employment Survey (ESS). The survey asked women born between 1948 and 1987 about their roles and positions.

Kurakin and Kosyakova's paper is a part of a broader international comparative research project 'Education as a Lifelong Process – Comparing Educational Trajectories in Modern Societies' (eduLIFE) conducted between 2011 and 2016 by the European University Institute in Florence and involving the HSE Institute of Education.

A special issue of The Journal of Sociology and Social Anthropology about the eduLIFE project, edited by Hans-Peter Blossfeld, Yulia Kosyakova, Jan Skopek, Gordey Yastrebov and Dmitry Kurakin, will be released before the end of 2016. The issue will feature Russian translations of chapters summarising each of the eduLIFE phases, and full-text cases from Russia.

December 06, 2016