Viola Höll, Berlin
Illustration: Amelie Kutter
Once economic and political reforms in the former Soviet Union started, public opinion in the former Soviet Union stated these reforms would significantly affect women. When unemployment was legalized in 1991, people thought that the result of economic restructuring would be mass layoffs. This unemployment was expected to be mainly a women?s problem.
The article investigates, how Russian society reflects women?s work and women?s unemployment in the post-communist economy. How do Russian politicians and the media portray and estimate the situation? Are these opinions reflected in survey data? And, how do women judge their own situation? Will they be willing to leave their work places without fighting for them and return to their kitchens?
After all: does sending women home from work make Russian economy more efficient?
Read more about why Russian women should not work according to public opinion and why they go to work anyway.
Why Russian women should not work. Public opinions in the 1990s
When mass unemployment was threatening Russian employees, the media and policy-making circles in Russia focused more and more on the negative aspects of women?s work. Their argument was that women shouldn?t take men?s jobs away. The primary goal should be to protect men from unemployment.
Work is not female?.
The fact that women didn?t have to work was also seen as a social progress, as the Russian commentator Larissa Lissyutkina argued: ?[…] emancipation for Soviet women is not based upon a demand to work. On the contrary, liberation is perceived by many as the right not to work.?
Nanette Funk, as well, put emphasis on the negative aspects of paid work. While it ?[…] provides some benefits and satisfactions, such as friendship, solidarity, relief from boredom at home, some economic goods, and a degree of respect and autonomy, it nevertheless involves gender alienation, having to be like a man… is all too often boring and absurd and provides only limited autonomy, given low salaries…[I] n spite of the benefits, the harm it generates is above any acceptable threshold.?
In Russia, public opinion seemed to express the idea that instead of also working outside the home, women should be allowed to fulfil their biological role inside the home. Mikhail Gorbachev called it a ?purely womanly mission? to be housewives and take care of their husbands and children.
Work is not attractive?
Working was seen to be everything but attractive for women: Holding lower job positions with fewer career prospects, women?s part in decision-making and management nowadays is minimal. Hilary Pilkington illustrates this effect. Their status as ?[…] second class workers… encourages women to see work as materially necessary but undesirable, and thus to favour options to ?return to their womanly mission? in their homes.?
Kitchen is freedom?
In addition, Lissyutkina states that in Soviet times the only possible form of protest was to escape into private life. Thus, the house and particularly the kitchen were the only free spheres in society where women felt a sense of autonomy, freedom and the ability to control their lives. Women would be glad to be allowed to return to their kitchens and leave their exhausting work place.
As former Soviet workers state, this does not reflect how their real life looked like. For them the pictures of ?happy housewives? painted above are not reflected in the ?real working woman?s life? where overcrowded, poor flats may lead to claustrophobia. Consequently, workers often might be glad to escape to their work place. However, for the intelligentsia the kitchen may be a center of creativity and discussion, but workers may get more stimulation and companionship from their work collective.
To sum up, first of all, it was seen as more important that men have jobs. Second, women themselves would be glad to be allowed to stay at home in their cosy and creative kitchens. A third important factor was that reducing female employment was even seen as economically efficient. Without women, employers could save social provisions for women, such as maternity leave and childcare.
Taking into account all these arguments, one gets the impressions that women really are the ones that have to go home, or even want to go home and therefore are the most affected by unemployment.
But, is this the whole truth? What do the statistics say?
Women go to work anyway. The statistics
According to the survey data given by the state statistical service GOSKOMSTAT, there are only slightly less women unemployed than men and the percentage is even declining. According to the survey data provided by GOSKOMSTAT, in October 50,5 % of the unemployed were men and 49,5% women. In March 1995 55,3% were men and 44,7% women.
However, the survey figures of the registered unemployed show a different situation. Here more than two thirds are women. In December 1992, women made up 72.2% of the registered unemployed, whereas in March 1995 their percentage had declined to 62.3%.
Men are less likely to register
The figures by GOSKOMSTAT are the ones to be internationally comparable, as they are five times higher than the ones of the registered unemployed. However, it is also important to understand that men seem less likely to register as unemployed and that the reasons for this phenomenon are gender related, as well. Men generally receive higher wages than women and consider themselves as the primary breadwinner of the family. That?s why they feel humiliated by registering as unemployed. In addition to that, unemployed men earn a lot more than unemployed women by subsidiary economic activity and thus are less eligible to register.
Thus, we can conclude that according to statistics, in Russia unemployment is by no means mainly a women?s problem.
Moreover, instead of having mass lay-offs of women, many enterprises generally avoided this, but tried to preserve the ?backbone? of their labour collectives by using other strategies such as administrative leave, forced retirement of working pensioners, and late payment of wages.
Women are less likely to leave their jobs voluntarily
Because of these strategies, slightly more of the employees leave their jobs voluntarily than those who had to leave because of lay-offs or the closure of their enterprises. In this context, women are less likely to leave work voluntarily. Among unemployed women, 31% left voluntarily and 39% lost their job as a result of lay-offs. Among unemployed men, 40% left voluntarily and 29% had to go because of lay-offs. These figures suggest that, women cling to their work whenever they can and are more likely than men to stay until they are forced to leave.
This suggestion is proven by the example of men leaving industry in greater numbers than women. These men may be leaving to find better-paid work in the private sector, while women are too scared to leave. For women, labour market prospects are more insecure.
Thus, we can conclude that women, even in the face of late payment of wages, compulsory unpaid leave, deteriorating wages and working conditions, are not at all eager to return to their homes but hold on to their work as long as they can.
Even if their husbands? wages were sufficient to support the family, the majority of women would keep on working.
Why women don?t quit their jobs and why employers sometimes support them you can read here.
Why women love their jobs. The workers? point of view
Asked about the significance of work in their lives, women of different regions and industries regarded their status as workers and as part of ?labour collectives? as very important for their identity. Work meant release from the monotony of home life, a refuge from the boring burden of housework and was a source of companionship and support. Women appreciated the social life of their labour collectives and stressed that they feel more needed than at home. They often regarded the collective as their second family. They enjoyed, also, the content of their work, their responsibilities and duties, and felt an emotional attachment to their machines. They didn?t support the image of home as a refuge, mainly because of poor living conditions.
To sum up, statistics don?t reflect a higher percentage of unemployed women than men. In contradiction to the stated above arguments women don?t prefer household, but hold on to their work as long as they can, even if working conditions are getting worse and they are often paid late.
Why women are employed, but under bad conditions. The employers? vote
But, what about employers who say women are not efficient being too ?expensive? and unreliable because of pregnancy, childcare and other ?women?s problems??
This argument is paradoxically contradicted by the very same employers who as well conceded that women often work better than men. The employers say that the quality of their work is higher and that they are more reliable than men.
Thus, finally, we can come to the conclusion, that women because of being regarded as expensive, are discriminated against by managers. But, on the other hand, because women are satisfied with worse working conditions and lower wages than men, because women work harder than men and hold on to their jobs, they are also appreciated by employers. Therefore, women might not be at much higher risk to loose their jobs than men. Women are not more affected by unemployment than men, but by worsening working conditions, lower job positions and less possibilities of a career.
In order to change their situation, women will have to organize not only as workers to save their jobs, but also as workingwomen to fight for their rights not to remain in a subordinate situation at work.
source material and further information:
Ashwin, Sara and Bowers, Elain (1997): Do Russian women want to work?, in: Buckley, Mary (Hg.): Post-Soviet Women: from the Baltic to Central Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 21-38
More information about the subject you can get from:
Bloesma, Jos (1993): Neuzheli buduschee russkich zhen?schin ? tol?ko na kuchne?, in: Regional?naja politika, 3, 43-55
Khotkina, Zoya (1994): Women in the Labour Market. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, in: Posadskaya, Anastasia (Hg.): Women in Russia. London; New York: Verso, 85-108
Mezentseva, Yelena (1994): What does the Future Hold? Some thoughts on the Prospect for Women?s Employment, in: Posadskaya, Anastasia (Hg.): Women in Russia. London; New York: Verso, 74-84
For further information about the situation of women in other countries of Central and South-Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States, you can have a look at:
International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) (Hg.) (2000): Women 2000. An Investigation into the Status of Women?s Rights in Central and South-Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States