I’ve been thinking a lot this week about where to go with a series on gender in Russia. There’s a lot to cover there. While it all steeps in my brain, I thought I’d share something interesting I found.

Edit to clarify: (R) after a link means the linked article is in Russian.

metro ad from Moscow, late 2010

I’ve wondered about this basically every time I’ve ridden the Moscow metro. Not the lovely choice of rainbow colors – the text. In this common subway-car advertisement, the Moscow metro invites applicants for the positions of engineer and assistant engineer. The position is open to men 18 and older with a full secondary education. Men only? Is that ok to do!?

In the U.S. it certainly isn’t: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids hiring discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. There is a narrow allowance for exceptions called bona fide occupational qualifications (BFOQ), used in cases where a specific religion, sex or national origin (but not race or color) is necessary to the central mission of the job. But it seems pretty clear that “women can’t drive subway cars” would not fall under that allowance.

So, what’s the law in Russia? I suspected it would be similar – a lot of post-Soviet legal code is modeled after the U.S. or Western Europe – and indeed, employment discrimination is prohibited by article 136 of the current Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (R). So do they just have a broader BFOQ allowance? Are they engaging in the fun Russian pastime of completely ignoring the letter of the law? Nope! It turns out they are just looking out for the welfare of the ladies; there’s an epic list (R) of professions women can’t do, according to a government decree issued in 2000. Included:

  • professions requiring heavy lifting
  • most types of underground work (apparently that’s where the Metro restriction comes from)
  • a whole list of professions associated with metallurgy
  • construction and renovation work
  • mine construction and operation
  • peat harvesting
  • the operation or assistant operation of explosives
  • well-drilling
  • oil and gas mining
  • ship-building
  • chemical and paper production
  • and more!

Well, technically, there is a loophole that allows employers to hire women to these positions if they take extra safety precautions and pass government inspection. The tacit understanding here is that women need to be kept safer than men – because we’re physically weaker and more susceptible to the harmful effects of chemicals and environment, and because the future health of the nation is in our delicate, delicate wombs. This jives nicely with my suspicions about the unpopularity of oral contraceptives in Russia – given the widespread belief that fertility is extremely fragile, chemicals that mess with the endocrine system really freak Russian women out – and my dismay that the anti-choice movement is touting abortion as a procedure that throws female hormones dangerously out of whack.

More instructive, perhaps, than the law itself is the social opinion of women’s role in the workforce. This article (R) on Russian resume-posting and employment search site rabota.ru details the law and the practice of keeping women out of tough jobs. After a predictable discussion of the lack of muscular strength that makes women so ill-suited to physical labor, an assistant HR director for the business unit of a Russian paper firm explains, “Additionally, we can’t forget feminine emotion. For example, saving children from a fire or an emergency water landing could harm the female psyche. Therefore, employers are cautious about hiring ladies to “male” areas of specialty.”

A livejournal post (R) by a woman who really, really wants to be a Moscow metro driver also elicited some eye-opening comments:

“Women are less able to handle stress, on average (IMHO).”

“It’s too difficult a profession [for women]. You simply need an iron constitution to sit in a stuffy cabin for half the day, and at the same time take responsibility for the safety of hundreds of people.”

“Do you want children? Healthy ones? I don’t mean right now – just in general. If so, I don’t recommend it.”

Of course, there were also dissenting livejournal opinions (apparently most Metro drivers in Europe are women!) – and the overall tone of the rabota.ru article was one of frustration. I also recently found a great site called the Gender Page that touches on many gender issues, including employers’ total lack of compliance with non-discrimination laws (R). Like U.S. society, Russian society is no monolith. But these paternalistic, reproduction-focused attitudes are certainly the norm.

Next time: What does this actually mean for women in the Russian workforce?