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Regular version of the site

Mothers Struggle Staying Employed

How Russia's labour market is losing quality workforce


Many Russian women aged between 25 and 35 start a family and go on maternity leave. Staying too long at home caring for the child is not always an option, especially when family finances are tight. But many mothers trying to return to work face discrimination: employers find ways to avoid hiring women who are pregnant or have young children and try to get rid of such employees to cut 'unnecessary' costs. This is a major loss for the country’s labour market already affected by a shortage of skilled workforce. Based on a study by HSE researchers, this article examines some of the incentives and barriers faced by mothers of young children trying to return to work—and how these women are treated by Russia's corporate world.

Maternity as Threat

Employers are known to be suspicious of young female job applicants, concerned that they might go on maternity leave soon after being hired. Therefore, many Russian companies use legal or not-so-legal ways to reject such job candidates and avoid the potential cost of paying their maternity benefits. Some employers even find ways to get rid of pregnant employees and young mothers, often by creating unacceptable working conditions which force the women to leave. Generally for female workers, parenting increases the likelihood of becoming and staying unemployed. This, in turn, is one of reasons why families with children in Russia are at high risk of falling into poverty.

'At the time of hiring, they warn you: no maternity leaves, don’t even think of getting pregnant', says a respondent from Arkhangelsk, echoed by a Muscovite: 'Employers <...> orally warn you that, “should you become pregnant, you must immediately write a letter of resignation”.'

This is confirmed by findings from a study by HSE researchers Alina Pishnyak and Evgeniya Nadezhdina. In ten focus groups, women aged 25 to 35 across types of settlements and qualifications shared their experience of discrimination in employment. The qualitative part of the study involved 80 respondents, employed as well as unemployed, from Moscow, the large regional centre of Arkhangelsk, the small town of Kargopol, and the village of Shalakusha. All respondents had been employed before the birth of their children. The majority (59%) had one child, and about one-third had two children.

It was found that women in Russia face multiple barriers to returning to work after having a baby. In addition to discriminatory treatment by employers, the respondents mentioned struggles with placing their children in a kindergarten, no opportunities for flexible working hours, being required to take additional job training, etc. These factors tend to have a significantly adverse effect on mothers' employment, as confirmed by international research.

In fact, the longer a pause in employment, the higher the likelihood  of problems with finding a job afterwards. The common assumption is that women's marketable skills decline during maternity leave, leading to what is called 'the motherhood penalty'. The number of children is also significant: the chances of getting a job are much higher for women with one or two children, while most (64%) mothers of three or more children are unemployed.

Attitudes towards Working Mothers

Of course, not all employers discriminate against pregnant women and young mothers. Some respondents, mainly those with higher qualifications, reported positive experience at work. 'I spent a long time looking for a suitable employer for me to take maternity leave, with an official salary and a good boss', a Muscovite says.

Being maternity-friendly is usually good for employers as well. Several studies demonstrate that companies which are supportive of workers with children can build employee loyalty and achieve better results. This finding was confirmed by focus group participants. 'I knew that I would not be backstabbed or fired and would receive all due compensations', says a resident of Arkhangelsk. 'They have paid my maternity leave and all other benefits'.

But a positive experience with employers was mainly reported by those women who returned from maternity leave early. The researchers suggest that perhaps 'the employee's promise of coming back to work soon is what causes employers to be more accepting of maternity leave'. One way or another, employer attitudes can also be an incentive to returning to work after having a baby.

However, maternity-unfriendly workplaces are far more common. This is despite the fact that the mothers of young children were found to be better organised and more efficient than their peers without children. In addition to this, mothers are usually more loyal to the company and work harder to keep their job than workers without parental responsibilities.

Expelling Force

While firing an employee who is pregnant or on a maternity leave is illegal, companies find other ways to get rid of them, e.g. by creating unbearable working conditions. ‘Of course, they cannot officially dismiss you, it's against the law', a Muscovite said, 'but they can create an environment that will force you to resign'. Another respondent recalls being sent on a business trip when she was five months pregnant: 'I had a confrontation with the management and ended up in hospital to prevent a miscarriage. I later reported them to the prosecutor's office, because they refused to pay my maternity leave'.

Respondents from other cities shared similarly outrageous stories. In one instance, the employer tricked the woman into signing a document which allowed him to fire her legally. In many other cases, pregnant women were simply dismissed, sometimes without prior notice.

A respondent from Kargopol recalls being told to sign 'a piece of paper' stating that she would work until a certain date and then she would receive her compensation and leave. 'So, I had been working under this arrangement. Then a week before [the end date] I said that I was leaving' – only to be informed that she had been fired a month before and was not officially employed anyway. 'They can indeed fire you in absentia', says a respondent from Arkhangelsk. Many women about to go on maternity leave are denied bonuses and find their wages cut by employers.

Sick Leave Disaster

Managers often regard female employees with children as second-rate staff at high risk of dropping out of the work process and therefore unprofitable for the company. When their children get sick, mothers have to take sick leave, as many families cannot afford a nanny. Grandmothers cannot always help with childcare, especially now that the retirement age has been raised in Russia. Thus, working mothers are often left to fend for themselves.

Female workers with children are assumed to be less flexible or mobile, i.e. less likely to travel, take on urgent projects or work overtime. They sometimes feel like outsiders in the workplace and can find themselves bypassed for interesting projects, lacking leverage for career advancement, and rarely promoted.

But their frequent sick leaves are the biggest annoyance for employers. 'No company, absolutely no one is prepared to accept this', says a respondent from Moscow. 'Oh, [they say], your child is still in kindergarten, he must get sick quite often, right?'

Not just in big cities but in rural areas, employers often say, 'Now that you are back to work, you are going to be on sick leave all the time'.' Indeed, going on sick leave could be a reason for dismissal, as is the case in Kargopol. 'I came to work and was immediately warned, “The moment you take sick leave, [we'll fire you] and hire a normal shop assistant"', a respondent complains.

How Long Parental Leave May Last?

Some women are content with the role of homemaker, but this option is for wealthier families. 'Staying home [with a child] is possible if you have good finances—if your husband earns a big salary', explains a respondent from Moscow.

Generally, women find a three-year parental leave to be ideal time-wise, but some are prepared to return to work earlier while some others choose to stay home with the child longer. ‘When my [elder daughter] was little many years ago, I went back to work when she turned one, and I really regret it now,' admits a respondent from Arkhangelsk. 'I wish I could have spent more time with her as she was growing up'.

Some women are prepared to stay on parental leave longer because they are confident of their professional skills and less concerned about losing their employment. Having attained a certain level in their careers, they feel they can switch to other priorities. 'I have an excellent relationship with the management', says a respondent from Arkhangelsk. 'As we were planning for a baby, we knew that I would not have to sacrifice my employment. Everything was safe and smooth due to my seniority'.

There is a difference between highly qualified respondents and those with lower qualifications: the latter are prepared to stay home until the child turns three but not longer. According to a respondent, 'Returning to work after more than three years [on parental leave] can be a challenge for a woman <...> One loses the drive of earning money'.  In contrast, highly qualified respondents would stay home until their child turns five or seven, if the family circumstances permit.

Kindergartens and Flexible Hours

Returning to work is not easy for any mother due to problems with kindergartens, which may be too far from home, lacking enrolment slots or offering substandard conditions such as overcrowded groups, etc. Pre-kindergarten is rarely available. Meanwhile, kindergartens are a crucial part of maternity support infrastructure enabling women to return to employment. Many respondents stressed that they would go back to work if problems with kindergartens were effectively addressed.

A lack of access to flexible arrangements, such as working half days or setting their own work hours, is another barrier to employment for mothers. 'Of course, I cannot go back to my former job: working nine to five is not an option for me now', a resident of Arkhangelsk observes. According to a respondent from Shalakusha, "[I would return to my former job] if it did not involve a 24-hour workday and I could spend more time with my child'. But suitable jobs are rarely available.

Money and Personal Development

The main incentive to go back to work is financial. Families in big cities need to pay their mortgages, while those in small towns often struggle to make ends meet. Rather than a financial security cushion supplementary to the husband's salary, the wife's earnings are often the key source of family income. Child benefits are paid only until the child is 18 months old. 'Being on unpaid leave for another 18 months – excuse me, [it is impractical] nowadays', a Muscovite reasons, 'given that the child is growing and requires more financial investment'. 'One needs to work to keep the children clothed and fed', a respondent from Shalakusha sums up.

Other incentives to return to work include socialisation and professional development, as well as the fear of 'staying too long at home'. 'There is a need for social life, for something new going on', a Muscovite explains. 'Staying [at home all the time] is hard and can cause mental decline. But when you are at work with people around, it helps your development'. Another respondent from Moscow says she hates becoming a 'slow-witted [unemployed] person'. Another respondent adds that not having a job causes one 'to relax too much' when staying in good shape is a must.

Power of Status

Other incentives to going back to work include a desire for self-expression, for maintaining social status and keeping one's job. Highly qualified Muscovites find it important for their children to be proud of them: '[The child] would be really pleased to say, “My mum is the head of the HR department or the chief accountant. She can do this, and she can do that”'.

The respondents are concerned that their company might find a replacement if they are absent for too long. 'It’s not that I was under pressure to go back to work,' according to a Muscovite. 'But I really value my job position'. There is also a danger of losing one's job altogether. 'If I had stayed at home for three years, they would have made my job redundant', a respondent from Shalakusha says.

Many women in senior positions choose not to go on parental leave in order to keep these positions.

Some of the respondents changed jobs after the maternity leave for reasons such as getting a better job offer; not being able to work full day; being dismissed from their previous job or transferred to a position they did not like. Switching jobs was voluntary only in the case of accepting a better position; in all other instances, the respondents were forced to quit their former employment. Thus, the most common reason why women move on is that their pre-maternity job is no longer available or suitable for them.

Unfair Penalty

Working mothers tend to earn less than their childless colleagues. Described as the motherhood penalty, this difference is sometimes explained by the theory that women may lose some of their skills and competences while on maternity leave and have to take up lower-paid jobs when they return to work. But is it really the case? Is it common for women with children to struggle as they re-join the work process? According to the interviews, anxiety and stress are common: 'There is the fear of missing something important or making too many mistakes and being reprimanded by the boss'.

However, many respondents found only the first two weeks on the job to be really hard for them. Later on, they were able to adapt and do much better. 'I looked up my old notes and textbooks to refresh [the knowledge needed for the job]', a Muscovite recalls. 'Of course, I had not totally forgotten things, but it was sort of hard at first'. According to a resident of Arkhangelsk, 'I spent the first two weeks reviewing the computer software, then I studied the analysers and policy updates'. Some employees, at the suggestion of their employers, took refresher training courses before returning to work.

Overall, the challenges of re-adapting to work were rarely mentioned as a major problem, the researchers conclude. It appears that other barriers to employment – in particular, companies' reluctance to accommodate mothers coming back to the workplace – are far more important.


Study authors:
Alina Pishnyakк, Director, Centre for Studies of Income and Living Standards, HSE Institute for Social Policy
Evgeniya Nadezhdina, Associate Professor, Department of Economic Sociology, HSE Faculty of Social Sciences
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, September 30, 2020