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Regular version of the site

How Equality Started in Research

Female researchers in the Soviet Union of the 1920s

© ISTOCK

Legally, the 1917 revolution solved the gender issue in the Russian academic community. The doors to the profession opened for women, but a ‘glass ceiling’ remained. Ekaterina Streltsova and Evgenia Dolgova studied who it affected and why. This study is the first to present a socio-demographic analysis of the female academic community in Moscow and Leningrad during the early Soviet era.

New Players

In the Russian Empire, women could get a higher education, but they could not get a state certificate of this. This deprived them of the opportunity to apply for research and teaching positions. These restrictions were eliminated by a law passed in 1911, but only a few women took advantage of this.

The revolution continued to break down this tradition. An August 2, 1918 decree discontinued gender discrimination in university admissions, and an October 1, 1918 decree did away with the existing system of academic attestation: titles and degrees then in use were eliminated, and professorships became competitive.

By the late 1920s, the laws had been in place for about a decade – long enough for women to become part of the academic community ‘not as exotic “learned ladies”, but as a whole pool of new players’, the researchers say. In addition to the declared equality, this situation was fostered by several other factors:

 Growing number of research institutions and, accordingly, the need for staff (for example, there were 148 active research institutions in Petrograd in 1917, with 205 in 1921);

 Losses in male population due to emigration, the First World War, and the Civil War;

 Change of academic generations: active work of scholars ‘whose professional growth took place in the gender equality era’.

Where did they work?

The study looked at female researchers according to data from the State Archive of the Russian Federation and industry-specific reference books. The list included all those women who took research and teaching positions at research institutes and universities in Leningrad and Moscow in the 1920s (840 women).

Universities topped the ranking in the number of female researchers: The Second Moscow State University (65 women), Herzen State Pedagogical Institute (32), and The First Moscow State University (32). Such leadership can be explained by their history:

 In 1919-1920, The First Moscow State University acquired Shanyavsky Private University, which admitted women even prior to 1917;

 The Second Moscow State University was founded in 1918 on the basis of Professor Guerrier’s Moscow Higher Women’s Courses;

 Herzen State Pedagogical Institute ‘grew’ from The Third Petrograd Pedagogical Institute, which was a successor of the Imperial Women’s Pedagogical Institute.

What did they do?

Most often (in 40% of the cases), female researchers worked in natural sciences: chemistry, botany, geology, and others. Medicine is in second place, and humanities are third, mainly pedagogy, psychology, and philosophy (39%). The most ‘unfeminine’ sciences were technical (only 4 women), social (43) and agricultural (62).

The researchers noticed gender specifics in staff distribution:

 In natural sciences, women often worked ‘in the field that required “silent” assistants: in chemical and medical laboratories, computational and drawing offices’;

 The considerable number of women in ‘humanities’ can be explained by fwomen in this group who were involved in teaching only. This included aristocratic women who graduated from education institutions before the revolution and were in high demand at communist universities due to their advanced foreign language skills.

Why were there problems?

Almost 80% of female researchers had academic publications by the end of the 1920s; many of them were doctoral students or already had an academic degree. But even these factors could not guarantee their career advancement.

Success in an academic career for a woman was an exception then:

 60% of women involved in research took lower-level positions (assistants, laboratory assistants, metrologists, soil analysts, doctoral students);

 Only slightly more than one third of them worked at a medium level (research fellows and senior research fellows);

 Only 4%: 29 out of 840 women worked in high-level positions (heads of research departments and/or acting members).

On the one hand, there were still some external reasons for this: academic community inertia, quality of women’s education before 1917, and the older institutions’ patronizing attitude to fresh graduates.

On the other hand, internal factors also had a big influence. The ‘new players’ themselves often lacked the motivation to build an academic career: many of them did not aspire to higher positions, and looked at the work at universities as a way to earn money, often one that didn’t have the highest priority and combined this work with other jobs.

How did they get into research?

One of the most important research results, according to the authors of the study, was ‘detecting the key channels for women’s entrance into the Soviet academic field’.

Many channels turned out to be non-gender-specific and are still widely used:

 ‘Settlement’ at universities after graduation – work as department assistants, lecturers and teachers;

 Patronization – introduction to research by recognized scholars, mostly men at that time;

 The use of family relations. The lists of researchers include a considerable number of wives, daughters, sisters and widows of renowned academics of the time. However, one shouldn’t be too quick to criticize this practice of using personal relations: many women on the lists ‘deserved to become scholars and achieved further success in their respective areas’.

IQ 

Study authors:
Ekaterina Streltsova, Senior Research Fellow at the HSE Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge
Evgenia Dolgova, Associate Professor, Senior Research Fellow at the Russian State University for the Humanities
Author: Svetlana Saltanova, March 21