On the occasion of International Women’s Day, which honors women's struggle for equal rights and emancipation, HSE University Life spoke with researchers who specialise in these issues and staff members who care about the issues.
In 2019, the Levada Center conducted a survey on social attitudes towards various groups of people whose behaviours differ from the conventional norm. For the first time, the survey evidently included ‘feminists’ as one of these groups, and the answers were quite staggering: 9% of respondents said they need to be ‘eliminated’, and 18% said they should be isolated from society. In the same survey, homeless people, beggars, and people who are HIV positive were included as ‘deviant’ groups, and all of these groups were treated more tolerantly than feminists. At the same time, VCIOM conducted a survey in which the questions were formulated much more mildly, and it turned out that 62% of the respondents favour gender equality.
At different stages of its existence, Russian feminism has been subjected to the same criticisms: it is self-centred, oriented toward a very narrow group, and detached from reality. Of course, it is much easier for feminist organisations in the West; they can always appeal to their own history: look at what we have achieved — for women we have achieved these rights, those rights, and others. But in Russia, the authorities have always granted and removed women's rights and freedoms as they see fit.
In its current form, the movement emerged in Russia in the 1990s, and these were organisations funded mainly from abroad and, indeed, with an agenda that attracted a very muted response. For example, in the regions, they conducted studies on the issue of harassment at work, although this issue was, to put it mildly, not of high societal concern. As a result, ideas from the Western agenda were quickly suppressed, and today the feminist agenda centres mainly around violence.
Among various women’s movements and organizations, the Soldiers' Mothers movement and the fight against domestic violence are considered somewhat successful (in terms of resonance). Of course, we can say that these are only issues that correspond in some way with the patriarchal agenda — here we are talking about the physical suffering of people, about helping victims. At an official level, these issues suffered defeat rather than victory: a law decriminalising violence was passed and NGOs that deal with this topic receive much less budgetary support than they did in the 1990s. But the topic of domestic violence at least resonates in the public consciousness, and organisations that deal with this issue continue to do a very important job. They create shelters, work with young people, and some (such as the Ekaterina Crisis Center in Ekaterinburg) — even with employees of the Ministry of Internal Affairs — on how to work with victims of domestic violence.
Now, according to the same Levada polls, 70% of those interviewed know what domestic violence is, and claim that it is not a private family matter, that it is as much a fact of violence as in any other space. This is a great credit to the NGO.
I am not a feminist activist, but in general the feminist agenda is close to me and, in my opinion, very relevant to our society. We do not have gender equality, and both men and women suffer from this.
Opponents of feminism reduce gender equality to questions of opening doors, manual labour, staffing cloakrooms, and other nonsense. In fact, it is about the freedom to choose one's roles. A woman does not have to be barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen. A man doesn't have to be a warrior with a strong jawline. We are all free to be whatever we want. In my family, for example, the roles are not distributed in a very standard way. I do what I love because it's my calling; it's what I want to do. My husband, on the other hand, has been very involved with our child since birth and works much less than I do. Parenthood brings all of his talents out.
To strangers and acquaintances, we endlessly prove that it is normal, it is our conscious choice. These excuses suggest that gender attitudes clearly deny me the right to immerse myself in work if I have a young child, and deny my husband the right to discover himself as a father. When I applied for a job after my maternity leave, I diligently said that yes, I had a small child, but I really and honestly wasn't going to take sick leave. Nobody said anything to me, but for some reason I had presented myself as an employee with a flaw. And when a man applies for a job, no one even asks if he has children and what age they are, so, by definition, this cannot be a problem...
I do not consider myself a feminist. But I respect the rights of people to identify themselves with representatives of one or another social movement. It is everyone's personal choice.
I can't generalise about the whole of Russia, but there is definitely no academic genderism at HSE University. Professionalism has no sexual characteristics. If you have a good article, interesting research, and you are a good lecturer, then your academic career will not depend on gender. There may still be some stereotypes that boys are better at maths and girls at philology, but you can break all these stereotypes by personal example.
As for motherhood, it has given more meaning to my career. My work is part of my life, as are my children. I understand that as I develop at work, I become more interesting to my children. But then again, everyone has different choices. For some, even playing with playdoh is fun. And for others, life without meetings wouldn’t be pleasant. The main thing is harmony and happiness.
I am against any discrimination, including positive discrimination. Our happiness is in our heads. It all depends on how we perceive the situation. For example, again in terms of children. Women in academia are lucky. An academic career makes it easy to combine motherhood and a career, and it seems to me that no additional incentives are needed.
Recently two of my female students wrote papers on feminism in Russia. The conclusions from these papers were as follows: there is feminism in Russia, and it is heterogeneous in its composition, but it is gaining momentum and becoming a public phenomenon. Society is changing, and the feminist movement marks part of this change: women are trying to rethink what it means to be a woman in the modern world and what problems they face. Over the last few years, we have seen action groups make attempts —many of them quite successful — to get more people involved in the movement. What matters to me as a researcher is what initiatives activists use to appeal to the larger population — and I see that at this stage these are initiatives that can turn individual grassroots initiatives into a larger movement. Instead of communicating in closed communities, feminists hold festivals, offline conferences — this is very important for the sustainability of the movement.
Of course, we cannot yet say that the feminist movement is capable of changing society as a whole. But even by creating space for changing individual lives for the better, feminists are already achieving a great deal. Especially given the mood of the authorities to prevent the possibility of these alternative lifestyles.
In particular, I dealt with Russian NGOs helping people with disabilities. It is not very appropriate to compare these two topics, just because women have always been a full-fledged part of Russian society, especially since the 20th century — they worked and fought, and were never perceived as weak. But people with disabilities have been completely excluded from life, and only now are they becoming at least somewhat visible, mostly thanks to NGOs. But from the point of view of the behaviour of the authorities there is an obvious contradiction here. I think that in Russia, due to the historically conditioned high role of women in society, people were ready to accept a feminist agenda. But current regulations go against all the advances in women's equality issues: a law has been passed, according to which a woman has no power even over her own body; she can be beaten and it is not a crime. This is very strange.
I think that today’s wave of feminism is the first truly natural one for our country, one that comes not from the state, but from the people themselves. The previous wave, in the 1990s, was not as widespread and was largely influenced by the West. Now I see a huge number of young people, of both sexes, who are fully immersed in the feminist agenda and who quite naturally share it. This includes schoolchildren, university students, and doctoral students – young people in the broad sense of the word.
Of course, a dangerous moment for these young people is when they start their own families and have children. Because with this you can qualitatively test the strength of the choice: here there is a temptation to assert patriarchal guidelines and avoid the equal division of family responsibilities. Especially in our country, where there is an earnings gap and it favours men. Men always have the excuse that it would be better for them to find additional work and not to waste time on nappies and prams. And, of course, not everyone passes this test. Some families fall apart. But I also see that today's women have started to value themselves much more. It has been such a difficult path of self-discovery for Russian women, with insights and setbacks.
For example, I remember in the 1980s, the idea became popular that it would be good for women to stay at home, run the house, and raise the children. It was such a rather unexpected turn after the glorification of women as, first and foremost, heroes of labour. But by that time, it was clear that women would not get the same jobs as men and that they would be paid less and valued less. And then, in the 1990s, the search for the financial component began: all of a sudden there was this idea that every woman, if she became very beautiful and incredibly feminine, would find herself an oligarch and that would solve all of her problems. But this idea has not justified itself either. Gradually the realisation began to set in that a woman can earn her own money and solve her own problems.
And now we are witnessing a very interesting process, we are witnessing a generation facing a real choice: forward or back. It seems to me, though, that they are more likely to choose ‘forward’, to the world of equality. I don't think that there won't be any problems along the way, but it is very interesting to observe such processes.
I am 33 years old and my son is one year old, and throughout my first year of motherhood I have continued to do research: I am writing my doctoral dissertation in political science, working as a postdoctoral student at HSE University, and publishing articles in scholarly journals. I decided to combine my career and motherhood without maternity leave based on three circumstances. First, taking traditional maternity leave without the opportunity to engage in intellectual activities is obviously not for me. Second, my family helps me: both my husband and my parents. And third, due to the nature of my research, which is characterised as work ‘for the future’.
The thing is that in academia you can't just ‘take a break’ for a year or two. For a researcher, in reality this break, in terms of getting the final results from their scholarly work, will last at least twice as long.
I'll illustrate it with my own example.
By the time my son was born, I had won three research grants, and in all of them I was the project leader. In addition, four of my articles were accepted for publication in various journals, and my book (on international relations) was being prepared for publication.
And all of these processes were launched much earlier: applications for these grants were submitted more than a year before they were won, and articles in ranked journals in general are published only two or three years after submission. That is, a researcher never knows exactly what can result: a super article or a grant. I am well aware of these characteristics of an academic career, since my father is a Doctor of Science and my grandfather was a corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences.
By the time my son was born, I needed to continue my work presenting at an international conference, and I started writing a new article.
Of course, in my first year of motherhood, I reduced the intensity of my work somewhat. I prepared and defended my PhD in just two years, publishing an average of six articles a year. The arrival of the baby, of course, forced me to slow down a little: in the past year there were only four articles. But the hardest period is now behind me, and I am sure that in the coming years I will regain my usual pace of work.
Personally, I have never experienced sexism in academia. In my work, I am surrounded by women who have managed to become distinguished and respected scholars without special treatment based on gender. But there are also areas related to academic work where there are exceptions. For example, the editors-in-chief of academic journals, including those published overseas, are men; I have yet to meet a single woman. Despite this, research is, in my opinion, ideal for combining motherhood and work. The main thing is to be able to multi-task.
Gender bias is not as acute a problem anymore. Gender equality has more or less arrived. Do you remember the film Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears? There the hero looks at a woman who has built a great career, worked all her life for it, and tells her that he sees right through her, and she probably works as a foreman in a factory, except that she has been promoted through the trade union line. In the opinion of the film's male lead, it is unthinkable that a woman can be superior to a man in terms of status (position and income). And this is the reality of the 80s. Nowadays, I think this is no longer possible: in business or academia, a woman can achieve anything she wants and there are many examples of this.
Even in the construction industry, where I worked for several years, things have changed a lot: it used to be a male-dominated industry, but now there are female heads of construction offices, architectural bureaus, IT departments, heads of companies — and they are all seen as equal colleagues and partners.
After maternity leave, I went from business to research. Firstly, because research is more interesting to me, it is a bigger challenge, and there are many more opportunities to earn a decent level of income. But also because of the baby: in academia it is still easier to take sick leave, to reschedule my time so that I have time to do everything. I don’t think that motherhood has slowed me down or limited my development in academia in any way. On the contrary, motherhood is very mobilising and encourages discipline.