Women in the ex-USSR Today

Against the Current, No. 39, July/August 1992

Anastasia Posadskaya

PERESTROIKA, WHICH STARTED back in 1985, has brought crucial changes not only to the former USSR but to the whole world. Currently we are living in a different economic, political and cultural environment. But it seems correct to say that the period of Perestroika was finished in December 1991, when its main initiator, Mikhail Gorbachev, resigned as president and its object–the USSR–ceased to exist.

However, the move from a totalitarian political regime to democracy, from a rigid centralized planned economy to the market, from cultural stagnation to a diversity of perspectives, has been combined, if we speak of gender relations, with the move from one form of patriarchy to another. While the deterioration in the position of women was anticipated by a few feminist-oriented researchers, its actual scope during the beginning processes of marketization seems unprecedented.

Of course, a developed market economy might bring higher comfort in everyday life (though that doesn’t automatically better women’s status). Still, it seems that the current period has brought important changes mostly in the ideological sphere: glasnost, which revealed the truth of our history.

Unfortunately the economic transformation is much more difficult, and women seem to be the main group who pay for the development with much more than they gain.

The economic situation in the country is highly unstable. Price reforms in April 1991 and January 1992 decreased the standard of living of the majority. Expert estimates indicate that more than half the population live below the poverty level, mainly pensioners, single mothers, families with many children and invalids. The national output of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in January 1992 decreased by 17%–industrial production by 17%, production of oil by 12%.

It is expected that the economic recession will continue this year. Public opinion polls indicate 30% of the population express dissatisfaction with their lives; only one percent believe that life is better since the beginning of price liberalization.

Among the factors that further aggravate the situation we should mention:

* the lack of experience and sometimes of good will among the new governments of the CIS to cooperate on the main issues of the transition to the market economy, expressed in the poor coordination of financial, military and foreign policy;

* sharp ethnic conflicts that brought not only political disintegration of the Soviet Union but also caused increasing flows of refugees and migrants between former republics;

* conversion of the military industrial complex with numerous social consequences including the need for training and retraining thousands of officers and their wives, housing for military families returning home, creation of new employment opportunities for those (about 123 million people) employed in the defense industry;

* “trade wars” between former republics, different regions inside Russia and between different levels of executive and legislative authorities.

From the economic point of view, the main change in 1985-91 concerns the legitimizing of private property and the dismantling of all-Union central economic management. After the failed coup of August 1991, the process of political and economic disintegration became inevitable and urgent; even the formation of the CIS seems only a temporary structure in the process of even more radical separation.

I. Women and Employment

What is the position of women in such a situation? What changed for them in the period of Perestroika and what can they expect in the near and distant future?

We need to make several preliminary stipulations. The reliability of statistical data on the position of women in the USSR was always very poor. During Perestroika change occurred in two, opposite directions: positive in that any kind of information if available can be published, negative in regard to the new system of production and distribution of data. Different territories, enterprises, and levels of authorities try to avoid submitting information to the “top.” The destiny of the USSR State Statistical Committee (Goscomstat) is quite uncertain, and most probably even if it survives somehow as a Statistical Bureau of the CIS its capacity will be quite limited.

A third factor is that even existing information is now distributed almost completely on a commercial basis, which is quite expensive for the limited budget of research institutions. Fourth, the period of statistical data production doesn’t permit us to make any general quantitative assessments of the impact of restructuring in 1991. Fifth, the available data mainly is not relevant to the analysis of the processes happening to women at different types of enterprises: state, private, collective, shareholding companies etc.

Having said all this, our analysis must be limited to the period 1985-90, for which data is available. For later periods we shall have to refer to special studies or experts’ assessments.

The level of women’s employment in the former USSR was one of the world’s highest, which reflected the policies of the state aimed at high women’s labor force participation. Still these policies had never been consistent, and rather reflected the economic need for women’s labor. Hence during periods of reforms aimed at increased economic productivity, women were removed from production (New Economic Policy of the middle 1920s, economic reform of 1965 and the present reform). On the other hand, during the industrialization of the 1930s with its extensive economic growth, or in wartime (1919 and 1945) woman’s participation in the labor force increased.

These trends correlate with the relevant ideological justification: Women are called upon either to “mobilize themselves” and take an active part in production (ideology of gender equality) or to “return home” and remember their “natural predestination” as mothers and wives. It seems that currently we have a period of the latter type.

The distribution of women in different sectors of the economy is quite uneven. Women are concentrated in so-called feminized professions, where the more feminized the industry or profession, the lower their status. Among these over-feminized industries are credit and insurance (87% women in 1989), trade and public catering (82%), health, physical culture and services (81%), information and computer service (72%), garment industry (89%), textile (70%) and bread-baking (72%).

About 80% of all women in the labor force work in the feminized sectors. Employment of women, especially in industry, construction and agriculture is characterized by poor working conditions. About 300,000 women are engaged in strenuous manual labor. In such industries as wood-working, pulp and paper, light, food and polygraphic production women make up from 30-50% of those working in strenuous manual labor. About four million women work in hazardous conditions.

In agriculture the share of women among those who work in manual labor is 80%, and the total share of manual labor in this sector is 60%. At the same time among professionals in agriculture–agronomists, livestock specialists and veterinarians–the share of women is a much lower 45%. It seems that low-qualified manual labor is a very typical destiny for women. Thus in 1989, the share of women performing manual work in industry was 43% compared with 26% for men, in agriculture 79% compared to 55%, in construction 79% for women against 44% for men.

Women also occupy predominant positions in such professions as librarians and bibliographers (91%), accountants (89%), economists (87%), physicians (67%) and engineers (58%).

II. Women’s Wages and Salaries

For decades, the fact that women’s actual average wages are one third lower than those of men was hidden by the national statistics. Data on wage and salary by sectors of the economy, and by occupation broken down by sex, has not been available. Researchers must use either indirect indicators, e.g. the average salary in the national economy (240.4 rubles per month in 1989) compared to that in the feminized sectors (ranging from 136 in culture to 187 in trade and sales), or data from random surveys. All feminized branches of industry are characterized by lower wages–due not to lower levels of qualification needed, but to social relations in production where women’s labor is estimated as less valuable.

The proportion of men earning more than the average is 55.5%, while the corresponding proportion of women is 26%. During 1985-90 we had several state-organized increases in wage levels, which also concerned such “women’s” sectors as education, health, culture and the arts. Did this increase bridge the gap between women’s and men’s sectors of employment?

In fact, the gap between sectors increased over the 1985-90 period, with a slight exception for the credit and state insurance branches. In the least favorable position are those employed in health, where wages as a percentage of the national average dropped from 69.9% to 67.9%, education (a drop from 78.9% to 73.0% of the national average) and the arts (from 76.4% down to 69.0%). Clearly we cannot explain this difference by a lower level of education in the feminized sectors, since work in education or health requires on average much higher qualification than industry or construction; rather women are suffering discrimination on account of sex.

The underestimation of the labor of women is rooted even in the system’s political economy. First, the notion of labor doesn’t even refer to half the work done by women, namely housework. Taking this into account, in 1989 the total work time of women was 76.3 hours per week as compared with 56.4 hours for men. Housework takes 3.5 hours per day for employed women urban residents and 4.0 hours for employed women rural residents. About 40% of this home shift women spend on cooking (since 1980 the time for cooking has increased by 12% due to lack of prepared food in the shops), 20% on washing, sewing, ironing linen, cleaning shoes etc., 13% on cleaning the apartment and 18% on shopping.

These numbers reflect the situation before April 1991 and January 1992, when incredible price increases on basic goods and services–for example, laundry and cleaning prices increased tenfold yet wages for women working in these sectors went up only 90%–made them absolutely inaccessible for the majority of women. Thus their unaccounted and invisible home labor has increased immensely. Another factor increasing the “second shift” burden for women is that women must spend much more time lining up trying to buy cheaper goods.

The problem lies not only in the fact that there is a lot of housework, but that all of it has been predominantly performed by women and that over the decades nothing was done to involve men in this sphere. As our survey in Taganrog shows, among fourteen different home-related activities only one is a man’s realm–driving a car (and only 3% of families in the sample had a car).

Second, all the main spheres of women’s work were regarded as so-called spheres of non-productive labor (or non-material production), as activity which does not produce national income but has been maintained at the expense of so-called spheres of productive labor (or material production). There was extensive discussion among political economists ever since the 1960s on the validity of such distinctions, supported by numerous references to Karl Marx by opposing sides. Yet it seems that whatever the ideological justification of the “productive-non-productive labor” category, the fact that all “non-productive” spheres are much lower paid and mostly occupied by women is rooted not in economic considerations but in the gender system of the society.

Third, even inside industry, the so-called “productive” sphere, women occupy lower paid jobs. As of 1988, 43.0% of women in industry earned less than 150 rubles compared to 16.0% of men, 14.5% of women earned 200-300 rubles compared to 35.0% of men, while only 2.0% of women compared to 11.0% of men earned more than 300 rubles per month.

Thus even before privatization there was a dual labor market with women in hazardous working conditions, lower paid, less prestigious jobs with fewer possibilities for promotion. Privatization itself doesn’t change the situation radically, it only enhances and reveals
the patriarchal production relations that never ceased to exist.

III. Education of Women

It is well known that the level of women’s education is quite high in the former USSR. From 1979-89 the proportion of men with higher education increased by 13%, while among women the increase was 19%; among those in the labor force the respective increases were 13% and 16%. These trends are supported by the share of women among students of higher educational institutes and vocational secondary schools in 1988-89, 54% and 57% respectively.

The high level of women’s education has traditionally been regarded as one of the main achievements of the socialist state. However, the possibilities for women to realize any advantage in production from this high level of education seem quite limited. Numerous case studies show that the majority of women have no prospects for promotion. Among men with higher or specialized secondary education, half occupy managerial positions while for women this indicator is only 7%. As reported by Job Centers, opened in Russia in August 1991, 90% of women who lose their jobs are engineers with higher technical education. We shall explore this issue in more detail in a section on unemployment.

The situation is also quite poor regarding vocational training for women workers. This may be explained to a great extent by the shortage of professional and technical training, which is primarily oriented toward “men’s” professions. The number of establishments for vocational training for boys is five times greater than those for girls. Moreover about 20% of all occupations are closed to women on the basis of protective legislation.

Another discriminatory feature is that “women’s” occupations have lower maximum qualification grades than the “men’s.” Thus most popular men’s occupations in industry, like metal crafts workers or turners, are entitled to six qualification grades, but most “female” occupations have only four.

Unfortunately, skill upgrading doesn’t bring women to higher positions. In 1988 only 7.9% of women workers received out-of-job skill upgrading training. Among these, 65.5% indicated that nothing changed in their working position, 90.7% got no promotion and 88.9% were not entitled to a higher qualification grade, 81.5% did not receive a higher wage. Only 22% of all top managers of enterprises indicated their interest in the promotion of qualification of women workers.

As a result, around 25% of women workers believe the work they perform doesn’t require the level of qualification they have. Women have to keep these jobs, however, inasmuch as the possibilities of finding a job corresponding to their qualifications are quite limited. Such difficulties were indicated by women in Armenia, Georgia (42-52%), Lithuania, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Byelorussia, Russia and Kyrgyzstan (32-37%).

IV. Changes in the Law

The notion of the market economy as a goal of economic transformation was legitimized in the former USSR only in 1990, when a law on small enterprises development was adopted by Parliament. The labor market, as part of the market system, received its institutional arrangement in August 1991, when Job Centers opened all over Russia, operating on the basis of the Russian Federation Law on Employment.

The Law on Employment reflected four principal changes in state labor policy. First, labor in production is considered a right, but not a duty of a citizen as it was in the socialist period. Forced labor is prohibited; people are free to be employed or not.

Second, the status of employed is attached to employees and workers, employed both full and part-time, as well as self-employed or entrepreneurs. Students of secondary schools, vocational schools, higher and other educational establishments are also considered employed.

Third, the status of unemployed is defined as a person of working age (16-55 for women and 16-60 for men) who does not have paid work and is registered at a local Job Center as looking for and ready to work.

Fourth, the notion of an “appropriate” and “not appropriate” job is defined: “Appropriate is a job which corresponds to the professional fitness of the applicant, with consideration for the level of professional training, last job experience, health condition and transportation accessibility of the offered job.” As the practice of Job Centers in Moscow shows, women–who constitute 80-90% of all unemployed<197>are suggested for only a quite limited range of jobs, mostly not relevant to their education level and professional experience.

According to the law, the right to unemployed benefits is guaranteed to a worker or an employee losing a job after February 1, 1991. But the benefit is limited to one year on the following terms: for the first three months of unemployment, the worker receives 75% of the last wage/salary; four to seven months, 60%; eight to twelve months, 45%. For each child under the age of eighteen the benefit is increased by 10%.

Every week an unemployed person receiving the benefit must visit the job center. In practice, for instance in Moscow, women have to queue at job centers for two hours or so in order to be told there is no appropriate job. Currently some job centers prefer the unemployed to come only once every three months. They know that in the case of women of pre-pension age (aged 53-54 years), going to the job center is simply a waste of time.

The discrepancy between supply and demand at the labor market is immense. The Job Bank of Moscow had 86,000 vacancies on November 1, 1991, when only 7,600 were registered as unemployed. But 90% of all vacancies are worker’s jobs: paperhangers, bricklayers, sewing and textile workers, nurses, etc. At the same time, 75% of all unemployed are specialists with a higher education.

Pre-pension age women and the mothers of small children have less chance to get a new job. In case they cannot be provided with a new job, the Moscow government adopted a guideline of early retirement for women at the age of fifty-three and men at the age of fifty- eight.

This is how a typical unemployed person is described by Igor Zavadsky, Director General of the Department of Labor and Employment of the Moscow government: “This is a woman of about fifty years old with higher or special secondary education. The position she was dismissed from was called engineer, programmer, researcher, sometimes shop assistant (now the system of state trade is gradually collapsing). The result is that 75% of those unemployed are women–employees and professionals.”

Women are encouraged to take any job. It is said, “There is no low prestigious job, not to have a job is not prestigious.” The reason why only few women workers are registered as unemployed at the job centers might be explained by the fact that at this very period of the economic reform, when men are looking for better paid jobs in the newly developed private or collective shareholding firms, women are left at still existing state enterprises, trying to keep any job and afraid to enter the new economic sector. Nevertheless, this situation seems to be a temporary one. In the near future, when the process of privatization hits the big industrial enterprises, women workers will also make up the big part of the army of unemployed. We may conclude that unemployed women who are professionals are only the first, not the only, wave of women’s unemployment.

But what are the jobs suggested to women in the new labor market? If we look through advertisements inviting to people to fill the vacancies, we can easily single out the particular sphere women in which are needed. The section of commercial ads in the popular youth newspaper Moscowsky Komsomolets, which is called “OK,” has a decoration of men’s silhouettes, clearly indicating it is “not for girls.” Very often the age (youth) and the sex (male) is indicated, in case a new private or collective firm is looking for a deputy direction, area manager, or marketing specialist. Sometimes women are also invited as secretaries or typists, aged eighteen to twenty-five, and the mini-skirt as a uniform is preferred!

Frequently women from fifteen to twenty-five years old are invited to train as photo models, striptease dancers or massagists. Among the “decent” occupations, it is suggested that women train to become bookkeepers, nurses, governesses, secretaries. All these courses are commercial ones, costing thousands of rubles.

As for the training and retraining programs initiated and funded by the state, they currently do not have special projects oriented to involving women in the new economic sectors. Job centers may have agreements with training courses to provide retraining for those unemployed. In these cases the center pays for the training. Unfortunately this system is unaccessible for women because it requires that the future employer agree to hire her, a requirement difficult for a woman to receive.

Can trade unions be helpful to women in their wish to enter the enter the labor market? After the end of the All-Union Central Trade Union, a new diversified system of trade unions has been developed. However, the role of women in these new structures seems negligible. Although in the old trade union the woman’s role was a symbolic, formal one, the new unions do not seem to realize women’s issues are their concern at all.

In January 1992 President Yeltsin signed a decision “On the Foundation of Russian Three-party Commission on the Adjustment of the Public Labor Relations.” Characteristically enough this forty-two person commission, comprising representatives of government, employers and trade unions has no women members. Women’s interests are neither included or represented. In the current Russian government only one woman occupies a position–Ella Panfilova, head of the Ministry of Social Protection.

V. Evolution of the Policy on Women

Because of gender stereotypes that are rooted in the USSR–even though sometimes hidden by official propaganda–feminist researchers foresaw these negative features of women’s employment during the period of the transition to the market economy.

In fact the real patriarchal nature of the post-socialist society became evident in 1989, when the first half-free elections occurred. In the past, when a quota system was in place, 33% of the people elected to the USSR parliament were women. But in 1989 the percentage dropped to 15.6%. Still half of those women elected were nominated by so-called public organizations, that is, they were tokens of the Communist Party. It is clear that these women deputies were unable to set a new agenda for women.

But as a result of their activity, a Committee on the Position of Women, Protection of Family, Maternity and Childhood was set up in the Supreme Soviet, and also a corresponding executive body in the Council of Ministers. A Department on the Issues of Women’s Employment was formed in the State Labor Committee. The parliament mandated that a state program be drawn up on the Improvement of the Position of Women, Protection of the Family, Maternity and Motherhood.

The author of this article, together with some other colleagues, was invited to write the position paper. Although unhappy with the traditional title of the project, we decided to utilize this chance in order to introduce the non-sexist approaches to the government program. Our main principles were integration, not exclusion, creation of equal opportunities for women and men in all spheres of life and developing positive action policy in order to realize these principles.

Although the position paper was adopted by the parliament’s committee, it has never been concretely implemented. Only one measure, parental leave was included in the actual law. The program, elaborated by the state labor committee, was found to be too expensive by Ryzhkov’s government, and it disappeared together with the parliament itself after the coup.

Still, two sets of provisions were adopted in 1990. First, the law of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR (April 10, 1990) “On the Urgent Measures to Improve the Position of Women, Protection of Family, Maternity and Childhood” and the law of the Soviet of Ministers of the USSR (August 2, 1990) “On the Additional Measures to Provide the Social Protection of Families with Children in the View of the Transition to the Regulated Market Economy.”

In spite of the fact that the Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore, we think that an analysis of these two documents is of great interest. These decisions are still in force, although the unprecedented inflation has significantly altered the value of the initial sums, expressed in rubles.

The concrete provisions cover traditional ground in Soviet law on women and family matters: women’s labor conditions, provisions relating to childbearing and the rearing of children, benefits for women with family responsibilities.

VI. Labor Conditions

Women’s labor conditions is one of the USSR’s traditional spheres of regulation. It contains regulations prohibiting night shifts for women, banning work at certain jobs with hazardous working conditions, limitations for lifting and carrying weights, and additional remuneration for work in harmful jobs (benefits concerning a lower pension age, shorter working hours, higher wages).

The analysis of the application of protective legislation in our country, howver, shows that these issues were never solved by legal prohibition. Both women and those who administer industry have always been economically motivated to keep jobs with hazardous working conditions. Since the 1930s the State Labor Committee has been issuing the Lists of Jobs Banned to Women. Nevertheless, more than 8,000 women are currently occupied in jobs that are legally closed to them.

In the position paper we suggested a different approach: motivate women to upgrade their skills and thus increase their wage. Still, the current law requires that a new list of jobs banned to women be issued.

Maternity and Parental Leave Provisions

Since January 1991 maternity leaves are also granted to father, grandparent or another person taking care of the child. In practice this provision has ideological significance insofar as the current socioeconomic situation encourages fathers to work outside the home. However this measure, since women’s wages are on the average one-third lower than men’s wages, has only symbolic meaning without an affirmative action program.

In accord with this provision, the total length of the parental leave is three years, consisting of eighteen weeks of partially paid leave, an equal amount of unpaid leave and the requirement that the job be kept open.

Currently thousands of women are not guaranteed this provision because their enterprise is closed or because the enterprise has changed from a state-managed system to a privately-managed one. During the transition period, the most vulnerable group of women will fall in this twilight zone.

Our position paper proposes to change the basis for the partial payment of leave during the first eighteen months. Previously it was a fixed allowance of about 50% of the country’s minimum wage. Now it is equalized to the amount of the official minimum wage and is subject to the index corresponding to inflation.

In practice the provision is lip service, since there is no practice of officially announcing the minimum wage. The minimum wage that the government estimates is different from the estimates of the trade unions. For example, in January 1992 the official minimum wage was estimated at 342 rubles, whereas the trade union estimated it at about 1,900 rubles.

A new provision was made with respect to mothers whose job record is less than one year, or who did not work at all before childbirth. They now receive the right for partially paid leave at half the regular stipulation.

The situation with pre-school facilities has been aggravated as a result of these provisions, a fact we had anticipated back in 1989 (N. Zakharova, A. Posadskaya, N. Rimashevskaya: “How We Decide the Woman’s Question,” Communist, 1989, No. 4)

This process of cutting back on social expenditures has been accelerating. Creches for young children (before three years of age) are closing, kindergartens belonging to enterprises are increasing the payment for the children of parents who do not work at the enterprise up to 1,000 rubles a month.

In February 1992 the workers of the Moscow kindergartens and the parents demonstrated in order to push the government to subsidize the facilities. But the Russian government passed all responsibility for social programs to the local authorities.

As for Moscow, the government seems to prefer paying women who are sitting with their children at home seventy rubles a month. And so this is how the long maternity leaves has become a “privilege” for women to stay at home–whether they want to or not. In this transitional process the opportunities for women are increasingly limited. Thus women are “tenderly” excluded from the work place.

Benefits for Women

The current legislation contains more provisions for women with children, but it is oriented at reducing women’s working time in order that they are in “better fulfillment of their family responsibilities.” Before July 1991 part-time work was only open to women with children under twelve, while “flexible working hours” or additional free days for family responsibilities was encouraged. Today the administration must provide a woman with a part-time job when she needs it, but in practice women are often steered toward part-time work even when they look for full-time employment. On the other hand, those women with full-time jobs are afraid to ask for part-time out of fear that they may lose their job.

In the Soviet past, when full-time employment was the absolute norm, the notion of part-time work was seen as a possibility only for women workers, who might be an irregular, or specific part of the work force. At the same time, “regular,” “normal” or “correct” labor was the full-time work that men did.

Today the economic reforms reveal the actual character of part-time work: part-time work is normal employment in certain spheres of the market economy. This “benefit” is usually a form of underemployment rather than a “privilege” that women workers as a group have.

Last year a draft law for the Russian Federation was prepared, entitled “On the Protection of Family, Maternity, Paternity and Childhood.” Unfortunately, this document reflects the general tendency in legislation to “privatize” women. Its main principles consist in the “restoration of the priority of family upbringing of children,” “restoration and strengthening of the family prestige, family traditions and authority of the parents.” Consultants with a strong traditional orientation, mainly demographers, worked on the draft. Although it was to be discussed in the Russian parliament over a year ago (March-April 1991), that discussion has been postponed.

After the attempted coup in August 1991 all central USSR bodies ceased to exist, including the committees on women in the USSR parliament. At the level of the Russian Federation there was also a Committee on Family and Demographic Policy in the Government, which had recently been transformed into the Committee on Women, Family, Maternity and Childhood. By the end of 1991 a new coordinating committee on Women, Family Maternity and Childhood, under the jurisdiction of the president of Russia, had been formed. And on these issues the committee head has the status of state advisor to the president.

Thus a political will to formulate a state program on the policy of women in Russia has appeared. But will this program have a patriarchal or an egalitarian nature? And how might the program really change women’s position in the country? These are questions that are still to be answered.

July-August 1992, ATC 39