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Twelve Trends Among Contemporary Russian Women

From the timing of motherhood to loneliness and alcohol abuse


Every year, HSE University carries out dozens of studies on women’s lifestyles, behaviours, and changes in family, social, and economic status in Russia. IQ.HSE editors have selected the most essential trends revealed by these studies about Russian women today.

Varied Paths to Adulthood

Biographies of contemporary young women no longer resemble a well-trodden path: they are extremely diverse. There are many ways to live one’s life now that do not square with the traditional ‘home – work – home’ formula.

Studies show that the milestones along the path to adulthood for Russian women born in the 1980s–1990s do not align with those of previous Soviet generations. Completing one’s education, getting one’s first job, moving out of one’s parents’ home, and marriage are shuffled, overlaid, or, to the contrary, spread very far apart in time.

A sample of overlaid events is combining work with studies. On the contrary, university graduation and marriage are drifting farther apart. The interconnection between events is also changing. For example, young women’s departure from the family home is now more related to starting a job than to marriage.

Modern emancipated Russian women spend a lot of time on education and change their professions and lifestyles easily.  One can decide not to marry at all, or postpone marriage and starting a family. For comparison: among women born in the 1930s–1950s, 70% already had a child by the age of 25. Among those born in the 1980s, 65% became mothers by this age. For the youngest generations this share may be at least two times lower, according to forecasts.

More Women Are Choosing Not to Have Children

The deliberate decision not to have kids is still rare among women, but the share of those who are childfree by choice is consistently growing. They have different reasons: their career, self-actualization, or the desire to avoid having ‘extra’ problems. Some are afraid of losing their beauty, while others don’t want to be a ‘human reproduction machine’.

According to a sociological survey about the number of children Russians would prefer to have, 1% of women and 3% of men prefer to remain childfree. But when asked about the expected number of kids (which is closer to the real situation), these shares are 8% of women and 9% of men.

There are many motivations behind remaining childfree. Sometimes, having children is simply not affordable. But in most cases, the women who do not want to have children are financially better off and well-educated. The support of the community—of their voluntarily childless peers—is not a necessary thing for many of them.

Women with Kids Often End Up on the Side Lines of the Job Market

Working mothers often get a ‘negative balance’—they switch to informal employment or discontinue working completely. This is a loss for them, as well as for the job market. The problem is that companies and firms are reluctant to hire women with kids. In the surveys, the respondents quote the employers: ‘No maternity leaves, forget about getting pregnant’. Women with kids can even be pushed out of teams to avoid costs related to sick leaves.

Unsurprisingly, pressure from superiors and the real challenges of combining work and family force women to make compromises in terms of their employment options, or opt for unstable and low-paid jobs.

The conclusion is simple: it is necessary to develop the infrastructure for mothers and children, as well as flexible and remote employment. Working mothers are willing to work if they have acceptable conditions.

Grandmothers Are Emancipated and Have Drifted from Their Caregiver Role

It seems like today’s senior generations of women are not going to ‘serve the family’ for their whole lives and bring up the grandkids. They seek fulfilment: to develop their own businesses, to travel, to attend museums and theatres. The old role of the ‘caring grandma’ — a housemaid and nanny in one, who would take care of the kids day and night and become a second mother to them – is no longer attractive for today’s grandparents. The most many grandmothers prefer is to spend time with the grandkids on weekends and holidays.

The reason is that women in Russia become grandmothers early, by the age of 50 on average. By today’s standards, this is when people enter their prime and can finally live for themselves. But young mothers are also not always willing to entrust their kids to their grandparents. Generations are drifting apart, but so far not radically. It is not out of the question that grandparents will eventually come around to caring for the grandkids once again.

Wives Think about Divorce More Often Than Their Husbands

Despite the stereotypes, women are critical of their marriages more often than men. This includes plans of leaving their spouses, as well actually getting divorced. Researchers found that wives tend to be more resolved than husbands on this matter.

In a large survey ‘Parents and children, men and women in family and society’, over 3,000 married respondents of different cohorts (married in 1965-1979; 1980s; 1990s; early 2000s) were asked whether they had thought about divorce over the past year, and whether they were planning on divorcing their spouse in the foreseeable future. Characteristics of the respondents’ marriage status were also taken into account (married/remarried; officially or not; etc).

The survey showed that among those who had been married for a long time, as well as those who had been married a shorter time, women thought about the quality of their relationship twice as often than men. They also more often thought about divorce, and ultimately did it. In this case, the Theory of Planned Behaviour, which connects intentions and actions, is fully applicable. Women were implementing a scenario that they had elaborated.

In the ‘youngest’ unions in the sample, a particularly large portion of women were considering separation. This portion amounted to 27% of women who married in the 2000s and only 14% of their male counterparts. Meanwhile, divorce is much easier for contemporary generations: many unions remain unregistered. All they have to do is to move out.

Most Russian Women Become Single in Old Age

Nine out of ten single elderly people in Russia are women. This correlation, according to researchers from HSE University and the RAS Institute of Sociology, has not changed over the last three decades. Among single people in general, the share of women exceeds the share of men by eight or nine times: 88-90% vs. 10-12%.

Meanwhile, women of all ages experience loneliness much more often and more acutely than men. Among women, 3.2% feel lonely almost always, and 11.6% feel so often. Among men, these figures are twice as low: 1.9% and 6.6%, accordingly. 32.4% of women and 28.9% of men rarely feel lonely.

Emotional Instability in Women Impacts Their Alcohol Consumption

High levels of neuroticism (emotional instability, anxiety, impulsivity, vulnerability to stress, etc.) has more impact on drinking habits in women than in men. The volume of consumed alcohol in men who experience neuroticism grows by 7 points, while in women, the growth is almost twice as high at 13 points. This was found in a study dedicated to correlation between personality traits and alcohol consumption (using the Big Five model).

Researchers say that high neuroticism is related to episodes of depression, which are more often experienced by women. They believe that alcohol may serve as a form of self-medication in this case.

Women Have Had a Hard Time Adapting to Lockdown Limitations

Russian women have experienced difficulties in adapting to the self-isolation regime during the COVID-19 pandemic. A study conducted by HSE University showed that despite the saved commute time and remote technology opportunities, women did not start spending more time on educating their kids, cooking, studying, self-development, housework, gardening, home repairs, or home improvement.

Over 50% of respondents said that during the lockdown, they had more spare time, but many failed to put it to good use. On the contrary, women exercised less and spent less time on grooming, and spent more time on social media, watching TV, and taking naps. Time management difficulties were worsened by unhealthy habits: 14% of respondents started drinking more, 7% started smoking, and 28% started overeating.

Women Prevail Among Highly Qualified Professionals in Russia

Gender asymmetry has grown on the Russian job market over the last 20 years. Almost two-thirds (63.3%) of highly qualified professionals in the country are women. Men traditionally prevail among qualified workers in manufacturing, construction, transportation etc. In these fields over 80% of employees are men.

While men are losing work due to the automatization of work processes, women are mastering white-collar professions more actively. Almost 50% of women and about 36% of men aged 25 to 29 have a university degree. Meanwhile, average salaries of women are still lower than those of men, and 25% of Russian women with a degree are unemployed. Women are also more often employed informally, with a minimum of social benefits, and take executive positions less often. However, the share of female executives has been growing recently and has already reached 45%.

Parents Rarely See Their Daughters as Future Scientists and More Often as Teachers and Doctors

Women’s choice of a career in science and technology may be hampered by gender stereotypes. 57% of parents would approve of their son’s decision to become a scientist, while 51% would support their daughter. In the case of engineering and programming, the difference in potential parental approval is even more pronounced: for boys, parental support amounts to 65% and 68% accordingly, whereas for girls it is at 52% and 53%. Meanwhile, the respondents view careers as a university instructor or a school teacher more appropriate for girls (60% and 49%, accordingly) than for boys (55% and 40%). Parents are also more positive about potential medical careers for their daughters: 78% welcome this choice, while 70% would welcome this choice for a son.

Stereotypes Deter Girls from Going into STEM Fields

Girls are often thought to lack ‘mathematical thinking’, a stereotype that limits their opportunities. Such archaic prejudices persist not only in schools, but at universities, as well. Unsurprisingly, bachelor’s and specialist’s programmes in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) demonstrate an obvious gender imbalance. The share of women varies from 25% to 33% in different areas of study. But only part of them complete their degree. Many feel pressure from stereotypes, which rob girls of self-assurance, lead to academic problems, and dropouts.

The risk of dropout is much higher for girls who believe that boys are more capable in mathematics. A study in 34 Russian universities has proven this. More than one-third of female respondents (35%) reported feeling this way. The risk of dropout for female students from this cohort is 57% higher than for their male counterparts. Due to all these reasons, it is hard for women to build a career in STEM.

Glass Ceiling in Academia

Over a century has passed since Russia abolished gender discrimination in university admissions. But the glass ceiling for women in academia persists today. Among Russian scholars, 61% are men, including 58% of Candidate of Science degree holders and 73% of Doctor of Science degree holders.

Women from Russia publish their papers in internationally recognized academic journals more rarely than men. There is also a gender imbalance in salaries. According to a study conducted by HSE University, during 2006-2016, male academics earned on average 16.3% more than their female counterparts.

Still, the share of Russian women with an academic degree has been growing over the recent years. In 2018, in terms of the share of female scholars, Russia took 25th place out of 55 countries, close to Belarus, Spain, and Great Britain.



Authors: Marina Selina, Olga Sobolevskaya, March 18, 2021