Newsweek #1, December 8, 1997
[for personal use only]
By Bill Powell and Kim Palchikoff
When Anna Koff, a 24-year-old political-science graduate of Moscow's most prestigious university, applied for a salesclerk's position at the Moscow airport's duty-free shop in 1989, her male friends told her she was crazy. The job was clearly beneath her. But she somehow sensed, two years before the Soviet Union collapsed, that she'd be better off pushing perfume for dollars than finding a job as a politician's secretary. "I wanted to have my own apartment and travel abroad," she recalls. "I knew that more money was more freedom." How right she was. Today she's cool, confident and impeccably dressed for business. And she earns nearly $50,000 a year (a fortune by Russian standards) as an executive-search consultant at Korn Ferry International, a world leader in the headhunting industry.
If only Russia were run by its women. Today, the country's males--from President Boris Yeltsin and First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais on down--are in crisis. Life expectancy for men in Russia declined steadily in the five years after communism's collapse, leveling off in 1996 at a pitiful 58 years. The drop is "the steepest and most severe ever documented anywhere in the world"--and is due mainly to an increase in binge drinking, says David Leon, a researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The overwhelming majority of the 35,000 Russians who died of alcohol poisoning last year were men, he says; the rate has tripled in three years. Sharply rising suicide rates also suggest that Russian men have proved less capable than women in dealing with the shocks their nation has endured since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia at the end of 1997 is full of brilliant, proud men, from physicists to generals, who have seen their status vanish--often along with their paychecks. Their response--a collective drowning of sorrows--could not be more destructive.
Russian women have simply gotten on with it. Their life expectancy, just below 73, has barely budged in the past five years. There may not be many outspoken feminist leaders demanding change, but in their own way, Russia's women are quietly beginning to lead a feminist revolution. There are simply too many women like young investment banker Yekaterina Kubasova--competent, determined and now moving up rapidly--to be ignored.
In the Soviet era, of course, women in the workplace were common--a reality that was less ideological than grimly practical: starting in 1941, millions of men went to war and never returned. By 1946 working-age women outnumbered men by 20 million in the former Soviet Union. Even by the mid-1970s, women still made up more than half of the total Soviet work force.
In offices they tended to be secretaries, and in factories regular laborers. When communism collapsed, much of the country's industrial base collapsed with it, leading to sharp increases in unemployment among women, since managers often fired them first.
They've bounced right back. Universities report more women enrolling in business and economics courses. Foreign companies in Moscow say that their new women hires are less picky about where they start and more open to transfers. Ambitious women packed a recent USAID conference on jobs in small business. "Russian women are more inclined [than men] to start at the bottom," says Margaret Minchini, an American who worked at a USAID-funded project teaching women basic business skills. "They're not shy to take an entry-level position and look for opportunities to move up. Men don't seem to want to do that." Partly as a result, income levels for women in managerial positions have begun to rise, up from about half of what their male counterparts earned three years ago to about 70 percent now.
Employers are cashing in. Two months ago Mary Kay, the American cosmetics company, held a convention for its representatives in the former Soviet Union. More than 3,000 perfectly coifed women jammed a huge ballroom in a Moscow hotel to swap tales about how to increase their sales. From a sales force of 20 women in 1992, Mary Kay now has 60,000 representatives in the former Soviet Union, and they rack up sales of $75 million a year.
How pathetic, by contrast, can some Russian men be? The Mary Kay women are exactly the kind of modern women that a lot of Russian men are leaving. Divorce rates in Russia are rising rapidly--from 606 out of 1,000 couples in 1992 to 764 in 1996. General economic hardship is the main reason, experts say, but not the only one. In Soviet times, many couples didn't get divorced simply because whomever left would not have had an apartment to go to. Today, particularly in Moscow, more women are getting out of bad marriages because they are able to find new apartments and support themselves. But nearly as often, it is men who are leaving, unable, apparently, to deal with a successful wife.
Natalya Dyakonova was a newspaper journalist who, by 1992, was making enough money to buy groceries every month--but nothing else. Today, she's the president of a high-powered public-relations agency in Moscow. She charges up to $5,000 to arrange promotional parties and press conferences for her clients. Her former husband was an unemployed journalist. "A lot of Russian men are lazy and [need to be] treated like children," says Dyakonova. "I treated my first husband like a child. I really thought that if I didn't take care of him, he wouldn't be able to survive on his own." She turned out to be right. "He got tired of coming home and there'd be no food on the table," recalls Dyakonova. "So he went to go live with his mother."
Still, the battle of the sexes in Russia really hasn't been joined. Many Russian women view their men's behavior less with contempt than with pity.
They know better than anyone how difficult the collapse of communism has been on their husbands and brothers; few say they are surprised at the psychological toll it has taken. "Russian men," says Dyakonova, "have to feel higher than women; it's part of their upbringing."
But traditional male attitudes do present problems for women, particularly in the workplace. Sexual harassment is rampant. Many Russian firms-and Western companies operating in Russia--still seem to hire women on the basis of how they look in a miniskirt. But, like their Western colleagues, Russian women are beginning to object. Last year the weekly news-magazine Itogi (published in partnership with Newsweek) ran a cover story on the topic, replete with a photo of a hand creeping up a woman's thigh next to the cover line: you've already been asked: don't proposition!
That problem may fade only when women have made it to the top. And there the plight of Russians seems similar to their Western counterparts. The glass ceiling is firmly in place in the new Russia: only about 5 percent of senior-management jobs at Russian companies are filled by women. Koff of Korn Ferry, a company that specializes in top management jobs, reports that 70 percent of the resumes that she sees are from women--"usually highly qualified women." But 80 percent of the jobs she finds go to men.
She doesn't approve of such discrimination, but she's not worried, even though women in the West have hit their heads against the glass ceiling for decades. Koff has sized up the male competition in Russia, seen how far she and her female friends have come in just six years and made her own calculation. How long will it take for Russian working women to break through to the top? Oh, she says, "maybe three to five years."
Kim Palchikoff is a free-lance writer based in Seattle, focusing on women's issues, health and multi-cultural issues. She was a free-lance writer in Moscow for 10 years.
Newsweek #1, December 8, 1997
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